UPDATED with comments from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
The Allegheny County Health Department has given U.S. Steel 24 hours to develop a plan to reduce its emissions at the Clairton Plant.
If the company doesn't present that plan --- and then get pollution levels from the facility under permitted limits within 20 days --- the county will order U.S. Steel to shut down its coke ovens or face fines of $25,000 per violation, per day.
An emergency order signed by Jayme Graham, manager of the county's air quality program, was issued Monday (June 17) after a fire at the Clairton Plant damaged equipment that removes sulfur dioxide from the plant's emissions.
The order questions the effectiveness of U.S. Steel's emergency strategies to reduce emissions following an earlier fire on Dec. 24 that damaged the same pollution-control equipment.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald thanked the health department, and outgoing director Dr. Karen Hacker, for taking quick action.
He also expressed his disappointment that another accidental fire has again disabled the plant's desulfurization process.
“People in this community need assurance that the pollution control equipment is reliable and usable," Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement. "Organizations with critical systems like hospitals have to ensure that there are redundancies and back-ups. U.S. Steel shouldn’t be any different."
Clairton Plant produces coke, a fuel used in steelmaking, by superheating coal in ovens, a process known as coking. Coke-oven gas is also used as a fuel by other nearby U.S. Steel facilities.
According to the county health department, an electrical fire in Control Room 1 at the Clairton Plant just after 4 a.m. Monday caused two other control rooms, Nos. 2 and 5, to go out of service.
As a result, the health department said, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide are not being removed from the plant's emissions. The same two control rooms were damaged in the Dec. 24 fire and some equipment remained out of service until April 4.
Sulfur dioxide is a known irritant that causes breathing difficulties for people with asthma and other conditions, and long-term exposure can lead to permanent health problems.
As of 12 noon Monday, air quality standards for sulfur dioxide had not been exceeded at any of the county's monitors, said Ryan Scarpino, a spokesman for the health department.
However, the health department staff has notified local and state elected officials as well as school nurses and pediatricians in the Mon Valley, and the department is monitoring emergency room visits in the Mon Valley.
Following the Dec. 24 accident, U.S. Steel took steps to mitigate emissions.
Those included "flaring," or burning off excess coke-oven gas; extending the amount of "coking" time --- the period during which coal is heated to produce coke; and increased use of natural gas, instead of coke-oven gas, at the Edgar Thomson and Irvin plants.
But Graham's emergency order lists 18 occasions between Dec. 24 and May 6 when emissions of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide or both, as measured across the river in Liberty Borough, exceeded the standards of the Clean Air Act, despite U.S. Steel's emergency efforts to reduce the pollutants.
Graham writes that based on that evidence, U.S. Steel's "measures intended to mitigate those excess emissions failed," and that "despite its best efforts, U.S. Steel cannot currently maintain coking operations in such a fashion as to avoid risking the public health and operate within its permitted and regulatory limitations."
Although some public health officials and local residents urged U.S. Steel to halt coking operations temporarily after the Dec. 24 fire, the company said shutting down the coke ovens could endanger employees, permanently damage equipment and possibly lead to layoffs at Clairton Plant and other facilities.
The latest fire, Graham writes, presents "a risk to the public health, safety and welfare necessitating immediate action."
State Rep. Austin Davis of McKeesport, whose district includes Clairton, joined fellow state Rep. Summer Lee on Monday in criticizing U.S. Steel for not investing more money in pollution controls.
"Enough is enough," Davis said in a prepared statement, adding that he was "disappointed and frustrated that ... efforts by U.S. Steel have again come up short."
"We can have good jobs (and) a clean environment," Davis said, adding it doing so at Clairton Plant would require U.S. Steel to put "people ahead of its profits."
Fitzgerald said U.S. Steel can start by putting backups into place.
“I implore U.S. Steel to use all due speed to get this fixed as soon as possible and to take immediate steps to put in a back-up system for their operations," he said. "The health of the people of Clairton and surrounding communities, and the U.S. Steel employees, is too important to do otherwise."
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 email@example.com.
Originally published June 17, 2019.