Conflict of Interest Note: The writer has a conflict of interest. He is a U.S. Steel stockholder.
(Photo by Mark Dixon, Blue Lens, LLC, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.)
U.S. Steel has completed repairs to pollution-control equipment at its Clairton Plant ahead of schedule.
But the announcement Thursday by a company spokesperson comes after several days during which federal authorities said air quality measured at the Liberty Borough monitor was the worst in the entire United States.
On Monday, the Allegheny County Health Department issued a new fine of nearly $708,000 against U.S. Steel for what it called "continued emissions problems" at Clairton Plant during the second half of 2018.
The county has now issued fines of more than $2 million against U.S. Steel since June 2018. In February, PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council notified U.S. Steel that they intend to sue the company in federal court for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act.
On Thursday, U.S. Steel announced in a press release that a desulfurization facility --- the process that removes sulfur dioxide from gases generated by the coke ovens at Clairton --- is operational again. The facility had been off-line since a fire Dec. 24.
"We are now desulfurizing 100 percent of the coke oven gas generated at our Clairton Plant," the spokesperson said.
"While we employed many effective mitigation measures after (the fire) caused catastrophic damage to the facility, we are now able to operate the state-of-the-art desulfurization plant again," the spokesperson said. "This is an important milestone in our repair efforts and we will continue to monitor and adjust coking times as appropriate."
The Clairton Plant produces coke, a fuel used in the steelmaking process, by superheating coal to remove the impurities. Many of the byproducts of the coking process can be captured and reused to make chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
The coke-oven gas itself can be used as a fuel at Clairton and U.S. Steel's other Mon Valley plants, including Irvin Works in West Mifflin and Edgar Thomson Works in North Braddock.
Since the Dec. 24 fire, U.S. Steel has used a number of strategies to reduce sulfur emissions from Clairton, including "flaring" (burning off the excess coke-oven gas) at Irvin Works, and using natural gas for heating furnaces.
U.S. Steel originally estimated that repairs to the desulfurization facility would take until May 15.
In February, the health department ordered U.S. Steel to extend coking times at Clairton to 27 hours and required the company to have its desulfurization process "100 percent ... back online" by April 15 or face "additional enforcement actions."
U.S. Steel said Thursday the repairs were "completed well ahead of our estimated timeline thanks to the hard work and dedication of our employees, the leadership of the United Steelworkers, our contractor partners and the members of the building and construction trades."
While U.S. Steel said it had taken "effective" measures to mitigate excess sulfur dioxide emissions, an air quality monitor located at South Allegheny High School in Liberty Borough has told a different story.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pollution levels in the Liberty-Clairton area have been been in the "unhealthy" range several times over the past week.
On Tuesday, Neil Donahue, a professor of chemistry, chemical engineering and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told Pittsburgh City Council that air pollution in the Pittsburgh area is causing more deaths than homicide and car crashes combined.
The cost --- including hospital and doctor visits, medications as well as missed school and work hours --- runs into the "billions" of dollars, he said.
“As such, it’s a calamity,” Donahue said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “In terms of numbers, it’s about equivalent to the opioid epidemic.”
Although neither Donahue nor other health experts who testified before Pittsburgh City Council blamed Clairton or U.S. Steel for all of the problems --- other factories also were singled out, along with traffic congestion, fracking and asbestos --- the ongoing issues at Clairton Plant remain top of most people's minds.
On Monday, the county Health Department issued its latest fine against U.S. Steel. It represents the fifth time since November 2017 that the county has taken legal action against the company for allegedly violating the terms of its permits at Clairton Plant as well as Edgar Thomson and Irvin.
Health Department spokesman Ryan Scarpino said Monday when the repairs to the fire-damaged equipment at Clairton Plant are fully complete, the agency will "conduct a comprehensive assessment of violations and will evaluate and review all information to determine the amount of the resulting civil penalties."
The fines, he said, "will be in addition to any additional measures that will be required" by the health department.
U.S. Steel has appealed past fines and enforcement actions ordered by the health department, arguing in some cases that strategies suggested by county officials would worsen pollution or jeopardize worker safety.
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published April 04, 2019.