U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant in a 2010 photo by Patrick Cain. (Via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)
For the second time in six months, a fire has knocked out emissions-control equipment at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant.
A company spokesman said that a small electrical fire was detected early Monday morning (June 17) in a circuit-breaker panel that delivers power to the byproducts facility at the plant. There were no injuries "and the fire was quickly extinguished," the company said in a prepared statement.
But the blaze knocked out processing equipment that removes sulfur dioxide emissions, the company said.
There are no specific precautions recommended for the public at this time, said Ryan Scarpino, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department.
However, children, the elderly and people with lung or heart conditions should be aware of the potential for higher-than-normal sulfur dioxide levels in the air, Scarpino said.
Sulfur dioxide, or SO2, is a major byproduct of burning coal as fuel. In the short-term, exposure to sulfur dioxide can make breathing difficult, especially for people with asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
SO2 also interacts with other chemicals in the air to form small particles that can lodge deeply in the lungs and those may cause long-term health problems, the EPA has said.
State Rep. Summer Lee of Swissvale, who has been a vocal critic of U.S. Steel's pollution-control efforts and the health department's responses, criticized the company in the wake of Monday's accident.
In a statement released on Facebook, Lee questioned why U.S. Steel's plans to invest $1 billion in upgrades to its Mon Valley steel-making facilities --- which include Irvin Plant in West Mifflin and Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock and North Braddock --- do not include better pollution control equipment at Clairton Plant.
"Again, residents of the Mon Valley, particularly Clairton residents, are at risk of elevated levels of sulfur dioxide," Lee said. "Again, those who already have respiratory conditions, children and the elderly are vulnerable."
"Enough is quite enough," she said, challenging local elected officials as well as labor unions to offer leadership. "We’re in (an) environmental crisis! ... So how much longer will we twiddle our thumbs?" Lee said.
Monday's fire was reported at 4:43 a.m., Scarpino said, and caused three control rooms at the plant to be temporarily shut down.
One control room has now returned to service, but two others --- which hold the equipment necessary to remove sulfur dioxide from emissions produced by Clairton Plant's coke ovens --- remain shut down, he said.
The two control rooms are the same ones that were shut down following a fire on Dec. 24, Scarpino said.
The Christmas Eve fire put desulfurization equipment out of service for more than three months and left the entire Mon Valley under an air-quality advisory.
On several occasions in 2019, air quality samples taken at South Allegheny High School in Liberty Borough were the worst in the country, according to the EPA.
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 U.S. Steel spokesperson said the company took steps "immediately" to mitigate environmental impacts, including using natural gas, instead of coke-oven gas, at the other facilities, and "flaring," or burning off, the excess coke-oven gas.
"Crews are working to assess the facility and the steps necessary to return the facility to normal operations," the company said in its statement. "We have notified all appropriate regulatory agencies and will continue to provide updates to the public as more information is available."
County health department inspectors on-site have been instructed to observe the damage and will be providing additional information to the department, Scarpino said.
The department will continue to gather information to determine the next course of action and will keep the public updated as it becomes available, he said.
Since June 2018, the health department has hit U.S. Steel with $2.3 million in fines for violating air-quality standards and the terms of its operating permits at Clairton.
On June 4, U.S. Steel appealed the most recent $337,670 fine, which was issued in May for ongoing emissions problems at Clairton Plant --- but which do not include issues related to the Dec. 24 fire or other actions still in the appeals process.
U.S. Steel has argued that the county is assessing fines based on "inappropriate and/or inaccurate data" and that the penalties being levied are "excessive."
"Again, I’m sure, (U.S. Steel) will go on with business as usual and demand the workers and residents to do them same," Lee said in her statement Monday. "Still, Allegheny County and the Mon Valley experience among the worst air quality, and are continously exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution."
A U.S. Steel spokesperson said the company will issue updates on its Clairton Plant website at www.clairton.uss.com.
Conflict of Interest Note: The writer has a conflict of interest. He is a U.S. Steel stockholder.
Jason Togyer is volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. and editor of Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published June 17, 2019.