Above: The crowd overflowed city council chambers at Clairton's municipal building on Feb. 7 during a hearing on air quality problems following a fire at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant. (Charlotte Hopkins photo, special to Tube City Almanac)
Workers at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant said they want to have an open discussion about the air quality around the facility --- but they also want to preserve thousands of jobs in the Mon Valley.
"Simply put, if U.S. Steel ends up idling batteries, our members will lose their jobs," said Don Furko, president of United Steelworkers Local Union 1557. "This will begin a chain of events that will have a devastating impact on them, their families and our communities across the Mon Valley."
Following a standing-room-only meeting last week at the Clairton Municipal Building, state lawmakers are hoping to bring the company, employees, residents and environmental advocates to the table to work together. State Sen. Jim Brewster said U.S. Steel has agreed to open quarterly meetings to lawmakers, health groups and concerned residents.
“The purpose of the meeting wasn't to find blame but to find a process to keep U.S. Steel open and producing coke, and also pay attention to our air quality," Brewster said. "I want closer discussions, and invite them to the meetings, not to argue or debate but create partnerships in communication.”
Clairton Plant makes coke, a fuel used in the steelmaking process, by baking tars, sulfur and other chemicals out of coal. It has 10 coke batteries with 708 ovens that together produce 4.3 million tons of coke, making it the largest producer of coke in North America.
The plant also has more than 6,300 potential points where air pollution can escape.
For decades, there have been concerns about air pollution from Clairton Plant, but the worries escalated after a fire broke out on Dec. 24, causing $40 million in damages to two gas dispatcher stations.
In the aftermath, high levels readings of sulfur dioxide were measured in the air near the plant, and the Allegheny County Health Department issued warnings to 22 communities that the air could be unhealthy for those suffering from respiratory problems.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated. Brewster said workers couldn't even enter the damaged portion of the plant until Jan. 8 because it was still too hot.
On Feb. 7, Brewster, state Rep. Austin Davis and other elected officials held the town hall meeting in Clairton to discuss air quality, community notification procedures, emergency response time and steelworker jobs.
Hundreds of people attended, including residents, healthcare professionals, environmentalists and steelworkers, along with their union representatives.
Some residents and environmentalists suggested that because of the pollution problems that have plagued the mill, they want to see the plant closed.
Steelworkers and management said they are open to discussions but also wanted to take a stand to protect their jobs. They said Clairton Plant is a vital piece of U.S. Steel's other Mon Valley operations.
“Without the coke, they couldn't operate the Edgar Thomson Works or the Irvin (Works) finishing facility,” said Mike Rhoades, Clairton Plant manager. The three plants together employ more than 3,000 people.
Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi said the city and its school district need the tax dollars that U.S. Steel provides.
“All (of the) groups need to work to together to come up with a plan that won’t shut the mill down, but improve overall air quality," he said.
Lawmakers criticized U.S. Steel, claiming they were not informed soon enough of the fire and the elevated sulfur dioxide levels. They accused U.S. Steel of spending too much time fighting with the health department instead of cooperating with them.
Brewster said the current “communication system is fragmented, but fixable.” He said the steel company and the health department need to have a plan of action on what they can do better in the event of future accidents.
"We will continue to improve our communication via our current strategies through additional opportunities such as mobile phone applications and direct communication with citizens, municipal leaders and legislators," Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the county health department, said.
Hacker was asked by Brewster if U.S. Steel pays fines when it exceeds air pollution standards, and if so, where the money is spent. Hacker said the health department uses the money to study air quality monitoring and emissions control effectiveness.
Elected officials who joined Davis and Brewster on Feb. 7 in Clairton included state Rep. Mike Sturla, state Sen. Lisa Boscola and state Sen. Jay Costa, the Senate minority leader.
Boscola said her goals were to “keep manufacturing intact and safe for the community, but still keep these jobs going and still keep this coke plant here. It's always about striking a balance.”
"We need to both address air quality issues and protect good-paying jobs in the industry," Brewster said, adding that U.S. Steel, the health department, labor unions and emergency responders need to be working more closely together.
Repairs to the plant's emissions systems are expected to last into May. Several residents argued that if the mill cannot be closed, then U.S. Steel should consider a hot idle, stopping the use of several coke batteries.
But Brewster said not all of Pittsburgh's air pollution problems are caused by Clairton Plant. "We need to make sure we are not overemphasizing one entity,” he said. Auto and truck exhaust fumes, other factories and even the weather are factors, Brewster said.
Brewster thinks the Clairton meeting will lead to positive outcomes in the future. “This is about U.S. Steel being a good neighbor and working with legislators, environmental groups and the community to do what’s needed to get clean air now,” he said.
Charlotte Hopkins is a freelance writer from West Elizabeth. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Editor Jason Togyer contributed to this story. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published February 13, 2019.