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Health Department Hears Concerns Over U.S. Steel Agreement

By Charlotte Hopkins
The Tube City Almanac
July 31, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Members of the Allegheny County Council and Clairton City Council attended a public hearing Tuesday about a proposed settlement between U.S. Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department. From left, County Council Members Paul Zavarella (District 8), John Palmiere (District 6), Anita Prizio (District 3) and Bob Macey (District 9), Clairton City Councilman Tony Kurta, Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi and Clairton Councilwoman Denise Johnson-Clemmons. (Photo by Charlotte Hopkins/Special to Tube City Almanac)

“Enjoy your dinner with U.S. Steel.”

Those were the words of one Mon Valley resident to representatives of the Allegheny County Health Department at a public hearing on Tuesday.

He was critical of a proposed settlement between the health department and U.S. Steel over alleged violations of clean air standards by the company’s Clairton Plant.

The health department hosted the hearing at Clairton Municipal Building to hear comments from the public about the proposed settlement, announced in June. Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. Steel would pay $2.7 million in fines, with 90 percent set aside for a “community benefit trust.”

The company also would make improvements to emissions control equipment at Clairton Plant, submit to third-party oversight, create a community advisory panel and agree to other concessions.

The health department is accepting comments on the proposed settlement until Aug. 6.

One of the 59 people who spoke Tuesday, Mark Dixon, called the agreement “a slap on the wrist.”

The settlement “gave U.S. Steel exactly what it wants, a check list of the bare minimum physical improvements that U.S. Steel needs to work on,” Dixon said, arguing that $2.7 million is nothing compared to U.S. Steel’s estimated $14 billion in revenue last year.

It would have the same impact on U.S. Steel, he said, that spending about $9 would have on the average household in Allegheny County.

Due to the high number of people who wanted to speak, each person was limited to three minutes. Neither the health department nor U.S. Steel responded to individual speakers.

“I do not believe (the agreement) does enough to protect the public health,” Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby testified. The agreement, she said, “does not insure that the money will be spent helping residents deal with the impact of the pollution” and “leaves too much control in the hands of United States Steel.”

“The company needs to be held accountable for decades of dangerous, illegal pollutions from Clairton Coke Works,” she said.

Not everyone was hostile toward the company or the health department. Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi, the first person to speak Tuesday night, said he was in favor of the agreement, which he called “a start.”

Lattanzi acknowledged that he works for U.S. Steel at the company’s Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, but said his “first and foremost responsibility is (to) my family, my friends and my constituents in the city of Clairton.”

“Moving forward there is always room for improvement,” Lattanzi said. “We need cleaner air. We need cleaner water. But I do believe the answer is not shutting down U.S. Steel.”

Other U.S. Steel employees and union representatives also spoke out on the company's behalf.

A representative of United Steelworkers Local 1557 said that in the union's opinion, U.S. Steel is trying to keep the Clairton Plant in compliance “every day.”

U.S. Steel “operates the largest, cleanest coke facility in the United States,” he said. “We meet any challenge that is given to us. Every time the bar is raised, we meet the challenge. We are committed to environmental compliance because it is part of our job.”

Representatives of PennEnvironment were among those who testified Tuesday that the county's proposed settlement with U.S. Steel doesn't do enough to force the company to comply with clean air standards at its Clairton Plant and other Mon Valley facilities. From left, Zach Barber, Magda Gangwar, Jennifer Sybrandt and Mandy Hooks. (Photo by Charlotte Hopkins/Special to Tube City Almanac)

But other speakers claimed that after years of improvements at Clairton Plant, pollution from the facility has been getting worse for at least a year --- even before a fire on Dec. 24 knocked emissions control equipment out of service for more than three months.

They said that according to electronic air quality monitors, levels of sulfur dioxide and fine particulate pollution in the Mon Valley are routinely among the highest in the U.S., and well above limits set in 2006.

“It is good that the settlement agreement will preserve penalties against U.S. Steel and direct that money to the community,” said Zachary Barber of PennEnvironment, an advocacy group. “Upgrades and repairs are also a step in the right direction, although we would like to see the oldest parts replaced and not just patched up.”

PennEnvironment is one of the environmental organizations suing U.S. Steel in federal court over what they allege are thousands of violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act at the company's Mon Valley facilities.

Barber asked if a restaurant that had accumulated years of health code violations would be allowed to stay open. “U.S. Steel needs to shut down parts of (Clairton) plant that cannot be safely operated,” he said.

Several people testified that they would like the agreement to force Clairton Plant into complete compliance with all current air quality standards. Any coke oven battery that cannot comply, they argued, should be idled until it complies.

One resident pleaded with the health department to consider people who were facing breathing difficulties, including trips to the emergency room.

Michael Rhoads, manager of Clairton Plant, also testified. He disputed any claims that the facility has not been complying with the terms of its operating permit from Allegheny County.

“Clairton Plant complied with 100 percent of the requirements in the original unilateral enforcement orders issued by the county Health Department, and that compliance was a condition of this settlement,” he said.

U.S. Steel is committed to spending $200 million on improvements to the plant’s emissions controls and other infrastructure, Rhoads said.

Rhoads added that U.S. Steel will not have control over the community benefit trust. Instead, Rhoads said, an independent third-party would decide how the $2.4 million from the fines was spent in Clairton and surrounding communities.

No decision has been made on how much individual communities will receive. Several residents said they would like the money spent on air filtration systems for residents’ homes, as well as individual air quality monitors.

Lattanzi said he would like to see any money that Clairton receives put to good use.

“We would love to do a great big project for the city of Clairton,” he said. “Whether it be a small medical facility, a recreation center, a wellness center. Something for our children to do. Something for our adults to do. Something positive for the city.”

Charlotte Hopkins is a freelance writer from West Elizabeth. She may be reached at domyno83@yahoo.com.

Originally published July 31, 2019.

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