Taking audience questions during a panel discussion at the Sunset Room in Elizabeth Twp. on Friday were state Rep. Mike Puskaric, Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, state Sen. Jay Costa, state Sen. Jim Brewster and state Rep. Bill Kortz. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)
U.S. Steel should spend more money on anti-pollution technology and less on "lawyering up," said officials at a Mon-Yough Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Friday.
They expressed their frustration after U.S. Steel on Thursday announced it will again appeal air pollution fines levied against the corporation.
An accident at the Clairton Plant on Dec. 24 knocked pollution equipment out of service for more than three months and put the entire Mon Valley under a health advisory.
"We would rather see (U.S. Steel) make investments not in legal actions --- 'lawyering up' --- but investing in engineers to clean it up," said Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Executive.
A large contingent of clean-air and public health advocates also attended Friday's lunch, including Johnie Perryman, 75, of Clairton, who wore an air-filter mask for much of the event at the Sunset Room in Elizabeth Twp.
The mask is similar to three others Perryman said he has at home to wear when pollution from Clairton Plant gets particularly bad. He lives about a half-mile from the facility.
"The air has affected my health to the point where I've been considering just walking away, leaving my home, and never looking back," Perryman said.
Clairton Plant produces coke, a blast-furnace fuel, by heating coal to remove impurities. It also produces coke oven gas used in other U.S. Steel facilities. The Christmas Eve accident seriously damaged equipment designed to remove sulfur dioxide from the plant's emissions.
On several occasions this year, air quality samples taken at South Allegheny High School in Liberty Borough were the worst in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Allegheny County Health Department on March 29 fined U.S. Steel almost $708,000 for what it called "continued emissions problems" at Clairton Plant during the second half of 2018 --- mainly incidents that happened before the accident.
The appeal filed Thursday by U.S. Steel accuses the health department of acting "unreasonably" and claims that county inspectors "failed to conduct proper, fair and unbiased evaluations" of Clairton Plant.
U.S. Steel also accuses the health department of misrepresenting data that the county said shows Clairton Plant is operating in violation of its permits and the federal Clean Air Act.
U.S. Steel has said that 3,000 jobs at other U.S. Steel facilities in the Mon Valley are linked to Clairton Plant.
Fitzgerald and other speakers at Friday's luncheon stressed they don't want Clairton Plant to close, but they do want U.S. Steel to be accountable.
"There are rules they need to follow, and they need to follow the rules or they're going to pay the price," Fitzgerald said.
But during a question-and-answer session, moderator Michael Bartley read aloud from comment cards that had been written by people attending the lunch --- including the clean-air advocates and Clairton residents.
One commenter asked "how many people have to die" before the Clairton Plant is forced to shut down.
Another card asked why, when county and state officials are trying to attract manufacturing jobs to the Mon Valley, they don't factor in the health costs of those jobs.
The American Lung Association and other advocates have said that communities around Clairton have some of the highest per-capita rates of heart and lung diseases in the country.
"I think that up to this time, the data about the health consequences has not been taken seriously," said state Sen. Jay Costa of Forest Hills, who also serves as state senate minority leader. "I think the light has gone on, and I think they (U.S. Steel) now understand that they need to be more responsive to the community.
"If they're going to be in the community working, what can they do to improve the community?" Costa said. "Can (the plant's emissions problems) be fixed? The answer is yes. It all depends on them prioritizing how they value their presence in the community."
After the luncheon, Perryman said he was happy to hear Costa say the pollution problem at Clairton Plant is fixable.
"But if they can fix it and they don't, that means they really don't care," said Perryman, who said he frequently finds himself out of breath just climbing the stairs to the second floor of his house.
"They insist they fixed the (pollution) problem on April 4," he said. "I saw so much black smoke, brown smoke, gray smoke coming out on the 5th, and then we had days where Clairton had the worst air quality in the United States. Is that what they call being fixed?"
Perryman said he has five air purifiers running in his home, but frequently feels run-down and exhausted.
"My doctor ran tests," he said. "He said, 'Your liver is fine, your kidneys are fine, and if your thyroid is fine, the only thing I can suggest is moving out of Clairton.'"
Jason Togyer is the volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. and editor of Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Conflict of Interest Note: The writer has a conflict of interest. He is a U.S. Steel stockholder.
Originally published April 26, 2019.