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Consent decree over pollution issues at Clairton Plant includes $4.5M for public health
Editor’s Note: This writer has a conflict of interest. He is a U.S. Steel Corp. stockholder.
David Masur of PennEnvironment addresses reporters at a press conference on Monday as David Meckel of Glassport holds a sign that says “No city is livable with dirty air.” (Screenshot via Zoom)
Environmental watchdog groups this week celebrated the filing of a consent decree that will see U.S. Steel pay more than $8 million in penalties and legal fees and another $19.5 million for improvements to the corporation’s Clairton coal by-products plant.
But advocates argued that the settlement — on top of $17.5 million worth of improvements already completed at Clairton Plant — will not compensate residents of Clairton, Glassport, Liberty Borough and other nearby communities for harm they have already suffered in the wake of a December 2018 accident at the facility.
“U.S. Steel spewed out roughly a month’s worth of sulfur dioxide pollution every three days, along with hydrogen sulfide and harmful small particulates,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, on Monday during a press conference.
“Residents reported splitting headaches, uncontrollable asthma attacks and difficulty breathing,” he said. “It was so bad that the Allegheny County Health Department told local residents living downwind from the facility not to leave their homes.”
One resident, David Meckel of Glassport, told reporters this week he is still suffering. Meckel said that since the accident, he can no longer do routine outdoor activities, like cutting his own grass, without becoming short of breath.
“I can’t get any oxygen,” he said. “I’m huffing and puffing and there’s no oxygen for me to breathe.”
Meckel called the proposed consent agreement “a slap on the wrist” for U.S. Steel.
“We’re allowing U.S. Steel to pay to pollute,” he said. “They don’t fix anything ... if you were speeding in a school zone, 100 mph, and they fined you one penny, would that stop you from speeding? No. It’s not going to stop them from polluting, either.”
Clairton Plant, part of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works, produces a blast-furnace fuel called coke by super-heating coal in ovens to remove impurities. It also captures by-products for use in chemicals, and uses the cleaned coke-oven gases to fuel its Irvin Plant in West Mifflin and Edgar Thomson Plant in North Braddock and Braddock.
• Read the agreement (PDF reader required)
The consent decree, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, settles a lawsuit filed against U.S. Steel by PennEnvironment, the Allegheny County Health Department and the Clean Air Council in connection with a fire at Clairton Plant on Dec. 24, 2018, that knocked out air pollution equipment for 102 days.
Two additional equipment malfunctions that also caused air pollution releases — in June 2019 and July 2022 — were also included.
The settlement mandates that, in addition to $17.5 million in equipment upgrades and preventative maintenance already performed, U.S. Steel will agree to:
• Pay $19.5 million for upgrades to pollution control equipment on its coke ovens
• Contribute $4.5 million to the Jefferson Regional Foundation and Allegheny County Department of Economic Development for public health programs
• Pay $3 million in legal fees incurred by lawyers for the plaintiffs
• Pay a $500,000 penalty to the Allegheny County Health Department Clean Air Fund
• Permanently close coke-oven Battery No. 15, which was already idled
Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. Steel does not admit any liability and does not accept the allegations made by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
“We regret that these accidental incidents occurred and we believe this consent decree greatly benefits Mon Valley communities,” a U.S. Steel spokesperson said in a prepared release.
The $4.5 million in funding must be spent in communities near the Clairton Plant and other Mon Valley Works facilities, including Braddock, Clairton, Dravosburg, Duquesne, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Borough, Elizabeth Twp., Forward Twp., Glassport, Jefferson Hills, Liberty, Lincoln, McKeesport, North Braddock, North Versailles Twp., Pleasant Hills, Port Vue, Versailles, Wall, West Elizabeth and West Mifflin.
The consent decree must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before going into effect. The agency has 45 days to approve the agreement.
“At U.S. Steel, there are more than 3,000 hardworking men and women in the Mon Valley who strive every day to make essential steel in a way that complies with all environmental regulations,” said Kurt Barshick, vice president of the Mon Valley Works. “We’re glad that a significant amount of funds from this agreement will make their way back to the communities where we live and work.”
(U.S. Steel photo)
• Read U.S. Steel's 2021 Environmental Report (PDF reader required)
Masur called U.S. Steel’s comments misleading.
“Some of the language they’ve used downplays the extent of the violations and makes the penalty sound like a contribution or a gift,” Masur said. “I think some of those things are disheartening, but luckily the legal parameters will serve as guardrails to keep U.S. Steel in compliance.”
He and others also disputed whether the fire in 2018 was truly an accident, or the result of negligence.
“These outages were completely predictable, the result of decades of decay, neglect and mismanagement by U.S. Steel,” said David Donohue, a staff attorney for the National Environmental Law Center.
“The fire never should have occured in the first place,” added Jay Walker, a community organizer for the Clean Air Council. “The occurrence is directly related to U.S. Steel’s intentional strategy of not maintaining the Clairton Coke Works. Unfortunately, that harm is done and can’t be undone.”
Clairton Plant employs 1,400 unionized and management employees, according to a 2021 U.S. Steel report.
Masur said he does not think the consent decree is a death sentence for the plant and those jobs: “$17.5 million has already been spent as the result of our lawsuit, and the next $19.5 million is going to improve plant performance and ensure there are no future breakdowns. I think it’s going to keep the plant running operationally and really reduce the possibility of a shutdown going forward.”
The plantiffs said that the settlement also will remain in effect if Nippon Steel completes its proposed buyout of U.S. Steel.
“Hopefully Nippon Steel will fix the problems and put money into it and make it a clean, efficient business, which it is not at the present time,” Meckel said.
Masur said the plaintiffs agreed to a settlement, rather than going to trial, in part to ensure that any funding was put back into the communities.
“There were also certain components in this settlement — including shutting down Battery 15 — that we just simply couldn’t have gotten a judge to sign off on,” Masur said.
Edith Abeyta of North Braddock Residents For Our Future called the decree “a significant step in the right direction.”
“This victory, which took five years of litigation, means I can look forward to the day when I do not have to check an air monitor before I open my windows, or fear that dangerous, invisible gases such as sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide are seeping into my home and poisoning me and my neighbors,” she said.
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc.
Originally published January 30, 2024.