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Editor's Note: The writer of this article has a conflict of interest; he is a U.S. Steel Corp. stockholder.
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The Allegheny County Health Department has reached an agreement with U.S. Steel regarding what health officials called "numerous violations of both county and federal emission standards" at the Clairton Coke Works.
The agreement and the associated complaint were filed last week following judicial review in the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania.
County officials recognize that U.S. Steel "expends considerable resources to understanding and fixing" pollution problems at the Clairton Works, said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health at the Allegheny County Health Department. The plant heats coal to remove impurities and create coke, a fuel used in blast furnaces, as well as produce chemicals used in pharmaceuticals, paints and other products.
But, a health department spokeswoman said, U.S. Steel has failed to meet various commitments made to the county as part of its ongoing efforts to reduce air polluting emissions.
In January, the non-profit environmental activist group PennFuture announced plans to sue the county, U.S. Steel, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency for what the organization's chief legal counsel, George Jugovic Jr., called a continuing failure to enforce clean air laws.
A search of the federal court database over the past weekend did not find any record of the lawsuit yet being filed.
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PennFuture, formally known as Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, claims that Clairton Works violated pollution limits 6,700 times between Jan. 1, 2012, and May 31, 2015, or the equivalent of "five times a day, every day, for nearly three and a half years."
The Clairton Works, the largest coke manufacturing facility in the United States, is part of the Mon Valley Works. The facility operates 10 coke oven batteries and produces approximately 4.3 million tons of coke annually, according to U.S. Steel.
Clairton Works has long been blamed for contributing to Allegheny County's poor air quality, particularly in the areas of ozone concentration and fine particles of pollution.
As a result of the plant's presence, the city of Clairton as well as the neighboring boroughs of Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue are in a separate air-pollution "non-attainment" area from the rest of Allegheny County.
A "non-attainment area" means that the air quality in the Clairton and South Allegheny areas is worse than the minimum standards as defined under the federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
Last year, the American Lung Association's "State of the Air" gave Allegheny County an "F" grade and ranked the Pittsburgh area ninth in the country for the most year-round air pollution from small particles.
The Lung Association said that high quantities of ozone and fine particles of pollution can lead to an increased risk of asthma, cancer and other respiratory illnesses.
However, the Lung Association's figures did note that air quality in the Pittsburgh area has generally improved since the late 1990s.
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The Health Department said it has assessed U.S. Steel with nearly $4 million in civil penalties for violating clean air regulations since 2009.
In addition to requiring U.S. Steel to fix its offending coke ovens over the next five years, the consent agreement reached requires the company to pay the remaining $25,000 of the civil penalties.
The company is now obligated to "employ its engineering expertise towards implementing a solution that will bring its entire facility into compliance in the fastest way possible," Thompson said.
“We are confident that with this consent judgment, U.S. Steel will take all necessary steps to bring Clairton Coke Works into compliance with the law," Thompson said. "In the event that it is still unable to correct the problem, we have made certain that any continuing violations will be met with significant penalties and consequences.”
In an emailed statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, U.S. Steel said that "environmental stewardship is a core value" and that the company is "fortunate to be able to work with" the county Health Department to ensure the future "of not only Clairton, but the entire Mon Valley Works."
Originally published March 28, 2016.