Allegheny County issues emergency enforcement to U.S. Steel following fire at Clairton Coke Works | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Allegheny County issues emergency enforcement to U.S. Steel following fire at Clairton Coke Works

After the second fire in six months at U.S. Steel’s Coke Works plant in Clairton damaged the troubled facility further, the Allegheny County Health Department issued an emergency enforcement order demanding U.S. Steel create a plan to minimize pollutant emissions.

The order, released at about 5 p.m. Monday evening, gives U.S. Steel 24 hours to demonstrate its ability to keep its pollutants to the permitted levels. If the department isn’t satisfied, coke-making procedures at the plant will be shut down immediately.

A Dec. 24 fire at the plant forced U.S. Steel to shut down two control rooms where raw coke oven gas is processed and cleaned, resulting in the release of a number of pollutants to downriver systems.

Since that date, the levels of particulate pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, have increased demonstrably in the air surrounding the plant. In the enforcement order, ACHD listed 19 days in the past six months when at least one of those pollutants has exceeded regulatory standards according to data from the department’s monitoring locations in Liberty and North Braddock.
A second fire early Monday morning damaged the same control rooms as the December fire, prompting concerns about the ramifications for the air quality in the Mon Valley and the surrounding area.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald commended ACHD for issuing the emergency enforcement order, saying community members “need assurance” pollution control systems are reliable.

“Organizations with critical systems like hospitals have to ensure that there are redundancies and back-ups. U.S. Steel shouldn’t be any different,” Fitzgerald said in a press release. “I implore U.S. Steel to use all due speed to get this fixed as soon as possible and to take immediate steps to put in a back-up system for their operations. The health of the people of Clairton and surrounding communities, and the U.S. Steel employees, is too important to do otherwise.”

Pittsburgh’s consistent poor air quality made it the metro area with the fourth-highest number of air pollution-related deaths in the country in 2017. As news of the second fire spread Monday, Allegheny County’s state representatives criticized U.S. Steel for putting Mon Valley residents at risk. Environmental advocates like Pittsburgh City Councilor Erika Stassburger (D-Shadyside) and state Rep. Summer Lee (D-Summer Lee) took to Twitter to speak about the possible effects of the fire, as did fellow State Rep. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport).

“Disappointed/frustrated that the efforts by @U_S_Steel have again come up short!” Davis wrote. “They MUST make proper investments in their existing infrastructure to bring Clairton Coke Works in to compliance with Clean Air standards!”

According to ACHD, U.S. Steel says it has restored its pollution control at the Clairton Coke Works and the desulfurization process is back online. ACHD inspectors will verify that equipment is fixed and functioning today.

Two regional environmental groups, PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel in April, claiming the company violated the Clean Air Act at Clairton Coke Works by operating the facility while the two control rooms were not in working order. ACHD got involved in the lawsuit less than a week later, requesting permission from the court to intervene in order to bring the case to a “faster and more complete resolution.”

Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s Western PA director, said Monday that the latest fire at the Clairton plant is “exactly why” the group sued U.S. Steel.

“Yet another fire at this aging facility further underscores the dangers of allowing US Steel to continue to operate what amounts to a doomsday machine that cannot be turned off when pollution controls are knocked off-line,” said Deemer in a press release.

The health department said that while the populations that are most sensitive to air pollution — including children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions — should be advised of the threat of increased levels of pollutants in the air, residents do not need to take specific precautions at this time.