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• Proposals emerge in wake of Christmas-week smog event
• Environmental group ‘skeptical’ of corporation’s pledge
EDITED to remove typo.
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant. (Photo by Mark Dixon/Blue Lens, licensed under Creative Commons)
U.S. Steel has promised to help Allegheny County Health Department develop a plan to predict when weather conditions will make air pollution worse, and respond more quickly.
The health department’s proposal was announced in the wake of a so-called “temperature inversion” that left the Mon Valley and much of Allegheny County covered in smog during the Christmas holidays.
“We know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change,” said Ronald Sugar, interim director of the health department. “We’re seeing that first-hand here.”
A local environmental group welcomed U.S. Steel’s participation, but questioned why the corporation didn’t take voluntary steps to reduce its own output during the inversion Dec. 21 to 26, when pollution was thick in the air.
“Only time will tell if this is a firm commitment or just PR posturing,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution.
A “temperature inversion” occurs when cold air and air pollution are trapped near the surface by warmer air in the atmosphere. Without wind to break up the weather system, the air becomes stagnant and pollution becomes concentrated.
December’s air inversion lasted for nearly a week, and an air-quality action alert was issued on Dec. 24 for residents of Liberty, Clairton, Glassport and the surrounding communities after pollution levels measured at a monitor at South Allegheny High School exceeded federal air-quality standards.
There were two such “inversions” in Allegheny County in 2019, Sugar said. In the prior 10 years, there were only four total.
“ACHD recognizes that the increasing frequency of these temperature inversions is associated with climate change,” he said.
In 2020, Sugar said, the health department will work to:
• Improve its own forecasting ability to better predict when an inversion is likely to occur;
• Develop a plan to reduce industrial emissions within 24 hours of an inversion; and
• Work with local, state and federal lawmakers on tougher standards for industrial pollution.
Although there are many sources of industrial pollution in the Pittsburgh area — including coal-fired power plants — attention in the Mon Valley has often focused on U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant, which super-heats coal to burn off impurities and create coke, a blast-furnace fuel, as well as coke-oven gas and chemical byproducts.
The Clairton Plant is the largest coke works in North America, according to U.S. Steel, producing about 11,000 tons of the fuel per day. The facility has been the target of repeated fines and enforcement actions, as well as lawsuits from environmental groups and public-health advocates.
Both U.S. Steel and the health department were sharply criticized after a Dec. 24, 2018, fire damaged critical pollution-control equipment at Clairton Plant. More than two weeks passed before the accident was made public and the health department issued warnings to residents.
Until the equipment was repaired, levels of sulfur dioxide — a major air pollutant that causes difficulty breathing and aggravates heart and lung conditions — exceeded federal air-quality standards on at least 10 occasions.
On Friday, U.S. Steel pledged its support of “a science-based model to better predict inversions and their intensity” and promised to “do its fair share to propose actions that could have a measurable benefit during inversions.”
“These actions are in response to concerns raised following last month’s temperature inversions experienced throughout the region,” said Amanda Malkowski, a U.S. Steel spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. “These regional temperature inversions are complex issues and involve many factors that contribute to the region’s weather and air quality.”
The corporation, she said, will “work with ACHD and key stakeholders to develop and implement a strategy to do its part to address the air quality issues which result from inversions.”
U.S. Steel also will encourage the health department “to ensure that all members of the community contribute to improving regional air quality,” Malkowski said.
GASP has often been at odds with U.S. Steel, and Filippini said the group is “skeptical” of the corporation.
“It’s always a positive thing to see industry — and in this case one of the largest sources of industrial emissions in the county — play nice with the governmental agency charged with overseeing its air quality compliance,” she said.
“It’s great that U.S. Steel put out a statement reiterating that the company would work with the health department and do its ‘fair share’ to help efforts to better predict and respond to weather events that negatively impact local air quality,” Filippini said.
But, she added, temperature inversions are not a new phenomenon.
A four-day inversion over Allegheny County in November 1975 was later blamed in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report with causing 14 deaths — local officials disputed the number — and the agency claimed the Clairton Plant was the epicenter of the worst pollution.
During the worst of that incident, school buses in Clairton and South Allegheny were delayed and officials declared an “air emergency” posing “imminent and substantial danger to health.”
U.S. Steel made similar promises following the 1975 incident, Filippini said.
“U.S. Steel appeared to take zero voluntary steps during the recent six-day inversion to curtail emissions to limit the community’s exposure to air pollution,” Filippini said.
She also questioned whether U.S. Steel would voluntarily work with the county to strengthen regulations on coke oven emissions or “thwart and delay” new laws and rules.
Malkowski said U.S. Steel has “continued to work to improve environmental performance,” investing more than $50 million per year over the past five years at the Clairton Plant, Irvin Plant in West Mifflin and Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock.
The company also is complying with the terms of a 2019 settlement with Allegheny County that includes additional improvements at a cost of more than $200 million dollars, she said.
A planned new “endless caster” at Edgar Thomson and an electric power co-generation facility at Clairton will provide additional improvements, Malkowski said.
Countywide, air quality improved in 2019, Sugar said.
“Prior to December’s inversions, the county was on track for the second year in a row — and in our history — to be in compliance with air quality standards,” he said. “That accomplishment is now at risk.”
Industrial pollution is not the only contributor to the Pittsburgh area’s air quality, Sugar said. Car and truck exhaust also has “a significant impact.”
But, he said, the county “must also explore new regulations” to cope with short-term pollution events such as temperature inversions.
“These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue,” Sugar said.
Originally published January 14, 2020.