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Elected Officials Call for Pollution Crackdown; U.S. Steel Hit With New Lawsuit

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
August 28, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

(Photo by Mark Dixon, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.)

A group of 63 local elected officials --- including state Sen. Jay Costa, state Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, and the mayors of Braddock, Duquesne and East Pittsburgh --- have signed an open letter calling for stricter air pollution regulation and tougher penalties on violators.

The letter --- released Wednesday during a press conference held by an activist group, PennEnvironment --- came two days after U.S. Steel was hit with another federal lawsuit over emissions from its Clairton Plant.

“Allegheny County is a great place to live — but air pollution is threatening residents' health,” says the letter, available on PennEnvironment's website. “Pittsburgh is a beautiful place to live, work and raise a family — but not if the air will make us sick.”

At the press conference, held in the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh, Zachary Barber, a field organizer for PennEnvironment, said the fact that so many elected officials are coming together to speak “with a single voice should send a clear message.”

“Maybe once there was a time where air pollution was just the cost of progress, but today, in 2019, there is no reason why anyone should be forced to breathe dirty air that jeopardizes their health,” Barber said.

Industrial pollution in Allegheny County has been under increased scrutiny since a fire Dec. 24 damaged emissions-control equipment at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant.

Although Clairton Plant attempted to mitigate air pollution by reducing the use of coke-oven gas at its Mon Valley plants, burning off excess coke-oven gas and increasing the amount of time that coal was heated in its coke ovens, air-quality monitors measured increased levels of pollution, including sulfur dioxide and small particulates that have been linked to asthma, lung disease and other health problems.

On several occasions in 2019, air quality samples taken at South Allegheny High School in Liberty Borough have ranked with the worst in the country, according to the EPA.

The Allegheny County Health Department alleges that U.S. Steel’s emissions of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and small particulates known as PM 2.5 exceeded permitted limits 28 times following the Dec. 24 fire at Clairton Plant --- including several times after the pollution-control equipment was back in operation.

Over the past three years, studies from multiple researchers have called Pittsburgh’s air quality among the worst in the nation.

In May, the American Lung Association gave the Pittsburgh region an “F” rating in its annual “State of the Air” report due to particulate pollution and ozone levels that exceeded national air quality standards.

Out of more than 200 metropolitan areas, the Lung Association ranked Pittsburgh seventh-worst in the nation, behind parts of Southern California.

Besides Clairton Plant, there are other coke plants in the Pittsburgh region, including in Monessen, Westmoreland County, and Follansbee, W.Va., as well as coal-fired power plants in Armstrong, Indiana and Beaver counties, though one of those --- Bruce Mansfield plant --- is scheduled to close this year.

“This morning, I joined PennEnvironment and a group of my colleagues to say enough is enough,” Davis, of McKeesport, said Wednesday. “Every person has the right to clean air! We as elected leaders must work to improve our environment and combat climate change.”

Davis has introduced legislation that would stiffen the penalties on companies that violate air pollution standards, and require large industrial facilities to have plans in place to notify residents in the event of an accident.

Davis’s colleague, state Rep. Dan Miller of Mt. Lebanon, said “air quality” and “quality jobs” aren’t opposite terms.

“We must have partners that commit to both and who do not seek to delay corrective action at every turn,” Miller said. “Western Pennsylvania has literally built this country, and we wish to continue to build it, but our constitutional right to clean air and water must be respected in the process.”

The cost of production at an industrial facility “can and should” include the cost of addressing air pollution, he said.

Mon-Yough area officials who signed onto the letter included Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones, Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby and East Pittsburgh Mayor Louis Payne; Allegheny County Councilman Paul Klein, whose district includes Munhall, Homestead, West Homestead, Hays, Hazelwood and Lincoln Place; Braddock Council President Tina Doose; East Pittsburgh Councilwomen Mary Carol Kennedy and Stacey Simon; Homestead Councilwoman Louise Benton; Pitcairn Council President Mike Tobias; and Wilkins Twp. commissioners Michael Boyd and Sylvia J. Martinelli.

Meanwhile, a group of environmentalists has filed another lawsuit against U.S. Steel, accusing it of breaking federal law by failing to disclose months of hazardous emissions following that Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Plant.

According to a story in the Washington Observer-Reporter, attorneys representing the Clean Air Council filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh alleging the steel company violated the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as the “Superfund” law.

The lawsuit alleges that U.S. Steel has violated the law by failing to disclose when Clairton Plant is emitting levels of benzene, hydrogen sulfide and other pollutants above federal standards, and it asks for a federal court order compelling the company to comply.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meaghan Cox told the newspaper that the company would not comment on pending litigation, but issued a statement saying that “environmental stewardship and safety” remain “core values” for the corporation.

Cox told the Observer-Reporter that U.S. Steel spends about $100 million annually to comply with environmental standards at its Mon Valley facilities, which also include Irvin Plant in West Mifflin and Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock.

She also said $1 billion in improvements that U.S. Steel plans at its Mon Valley facilities “will improve environmental performance and energy conservation,” according to the Observer-Reporter.

In April, Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment filed a federal lawsuit over alleged air-quality violations related to the Dec. 24 fire. The Allegheny County Health Department has joined that lawsuit.

Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published August 28, 2019.

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