Deputy Director, PennEnvironment
Deputy Director, PennEnvironment
Operating without required pollution controls endangers public health
PITTSBURGH — PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council announced today they plan to sue U.S. Steel Corporation over continuing noncompliance with the federal Clean Air Act. The legal action focuses on the company’s Pittsburgh-area facilities — Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Steel Mill and Edgar Thomson Plant. They are part of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works integrated steel making operation.
Under the Clean Air Act, private individuals and organizations can sue violators in federal court after providing 60 days’ notice. Today’s letter alleges that the facilities are producing and using coke oven gas without filtering it through necessary pollution controls, in violation of Clean Air Act permits.
“For far too long, the Mon Valley Works has put residents’ health at risk,” said Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s Western Pennsylvania Director. “We’re sending a clear message to U.S. Steel and all other polluters: We won’t let you run roughshod over cornerstone environmental laws and put our communities at risk.”
Following a fire at the Clairton Coke Works on Dec. 24, the plant continued to operate without key pollution controls, causing air pollution levels around the facility to rise past federal and state safety thresholds on thirteen occasions. Since the fire, asthma symptoms in children from the area have increased 36 percent, according to one study.
“This is not about jobs versus the environment, which is a false choice,” said Christopher Ahlers, an attorney with Clean Air Council. “The company has the resources to address this problem, having increased its profits by over half a billion dollars in 2018, with the support of federal tariffs.”
The Clairton Coke Works — the largest plant of its kind in North America– placed third on PennEnvironment’s Toxic Ten rankings of the worst industrial polluters in Allegheny County. The facility produces coke, an ingredient of steel. The process generates harmful air pollution, including respiratory irritants like sulfur dioxide and known carcinogens like benzene. The plant has an extensive history of violating the Clean Air Act.
The Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock produces steel by using coke from the Clairton plant. The Irvin Plant in West Mifflin rolls and treats the steel. Based on public information, the environmental groups believe that since the fire, the Edgar Thompson and Irvin Plants have been burning uncleaned coke oven gas, resulting in pollution above those plants’ permitted levels.
“Living near the plants, we can tell air quality has gotten worse since the fire,” said Clairton resident Johnie Perryman. “We don’t want to be told to stay inside, we want the pollution to stop. We need strong action to clean up the air we breathe every day.”
Allegheny County has chronic air pollution problems, ranking in the top 2 percent of all U.S. counties for cancer risk from air pollution. According to PennEnvironment’s Trouble in the Air report, the Pittsburgh region had 121 unhealthy air days in 2016.
If the violations in the notice letter are not adequately addressed within 60 days, the groups can file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The groups would seek a court order requiring U.S. Steel to comply with its Clean Air Act permits, and civil penalties against U.S. Steel to punish the company for past violations and to deter future violations.
“Congress provided a means for citizens to protect themselves from illegal air pollution when government enforcement has failed to do the job,” said Josh Kratka, Senior Attorney with the National Environmental Law Center, which is representing the groups. “Initiating this enforcement action is intended to get U.S. Steel to take its obligations to comply with the law and to protect the health of its neighbors more seriously than it has thus far.”
PennEnvironment is a citizen-funded environmental advocacy organization working to promote clean air, clean water, and protect Pennsylvania’s great natural heritage. For more information about this and PennEnvironment’s other work, visit www.PennEnvironment.org.
Clean Air Council is a member-supported, nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting everyone’s right to a healthy environment. For more information, please visit www.cleanair.org.
The non-profit National Environmental Law Center (NELC) is an environmental litigation group. NELC will be joined in the lawsuit by environmental attorney David Nicholas of Newton, Massachusetts, and attorney Tom Farrell of the Pittsburgh firm Farrell & Reisinger LLC.