Numerous epidemiological studies directly link air pollution and viral infections. Not only are people who live in polluted areas at risk of more serious outcomes once they get sick, there’s good evidence that pollution makes people more likely to catch respiratory viruses in the first place. One particularly chilling analysis of mortality in the 1918 flu pandemic found that cities burning more coal suffered tens of thousands of excess deaths.
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, is Allegheny County’s worst polluter. Coke is an industrial fuel made by baking coal at super high temperatures. The Clairton plant is the largest coke manufacturing facility in the U.S. If you live in Pittsburgh’s East End, this is one likely source of that throat-burning smell that occasionally hangs in the morning air. For Clairton residents, exposure to high levels of dangerous particulates is an additional perennial problem. For years, the coke plant and the County have engaged in a complicated dance of regulatory violations, fines, lawsuits, and incremental company actions that do little to actually reduce harmful emissions. (The company’s latest promises for improvement have been set aside due to market uncertainty.) In ordinary times, that regulatory dance makes a certain amount of sense, because the Clairton plant is not just a noxious polluter — it is also a generational source of jobs in the community. But these are not ordinary times.
Early in the pandemic, Governor Wolf took admirably decisive action to shut down all non-“life sustaining” business activity and order Pennsylvania residents to stay home. Both of those orders remain in place and are crucial for preventing the most catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, the orders’ failure to consider the combination of industrial air pollution and the coronavirus creates an imminent health threat to the community around the Clairton plant.
Ordering business shut-downs has enormous costs. Nevertheless, across the country states have made the reasonable calculation that ordinary business interactions and work environments simply create too great a risk of sharply increasing COVID-19 infections. But social interaction is not the only contributor to spreading the coronavirus, so it should not be the only consideration for policymakers deciding whether and how to curtail business activity in the pandemic.
Counting the coke plant as a “life sustaining” business, while ignoring the life-threatening effects of the plant’s pollution, is irrationally risking the lives of local residents. Of course some pollution during the pandemic is unavoidable. Many, maybe all, essential businesses have some negative environmental health impacts — all factories pollute, and, for that matter, so do trucks delivering groceries. But businesses like the Clairton plant, which have such extreme negative health impacts that so predictably increase the toll of the coronavirus on a discrete identifiable group of citizens are in a different class. The Clairton plant operates ten coke oven batteries, serving not only U.S. Steel but customers in the commercial coke market. Some of the coke produced may be used to make steel for infrastructure, or for ventilators and other lifesaving tools, and if so the plant should be allowed to continue producing enough for these essential materials and tools, but only for them.
Ultimately it’s not just rational health care policy and moral decency that mandate regulating the plant’s output. The law is on Clairton residents’ side. When state officials know that the coke plant’s pollution will cause imminent excess COVID-19 deaths, ordering Clairton families to “stay home” and keep breathing the plant’s damaging output amounts to an unconstitutional state-created danger. The state has a responsibility to prevent inessential industrial production from causing utterly predictable and unnecessary deaths. U.S. Steel is already idling many of its plants in the U.S., simply due to market conditions. The company has the ability to temporarily idle some of its coke ovens and operate only at the level needed to supply essential goods. Production by the Clairton Coke Works that is not immediately necessary for truly life sustaining reasons should cease for the duration of the pandemic. Shut it down.
Emily Collins is the Executive Director and Managing Attorney of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services
Jessie Allen is an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law