Environmentalists and US Steel clash over Allegheny County air quality regulations
Julia Zenkevich contributed to this WESA report.
Residents, activists, union workers and US Steel weighed in on new rules that could reduce air pollution from the Clairton Coke Works at a public hearing Wednesday night.
The rule would limit the amount of pollution from coke ovens, the coking plant’s main source of emissions.
US Steel, the region’s biggest polluter, supports the new rule. But air quality campaigners say that doesn’t go far enough. And health service regulators now appear to be taking a different approach.
The initial rule proposed by the health department in 2020 was stricter and was supposed to reduce pollution from hydrogen sulfide, the gas that creates a rotten egg smell. But the original rule was challenged by US Steel in court. In January, a judge threw out the part of the rule that would limit hydrogen sulfide pollution. The settlement did not comply with a 2019 consent order between the health department and US Steel.
Since then, the health department has been trying a new approach to reduce the smell of rotten eggs in the area. In March, it fined US Steel $1.8 million for excessive hydrogen sulfide pollution, the first time it fined the company for hydrogen sulfide pollution. In 2021, air pollution in the Pittsburgh area exceeded state standards on 54 different days. Pollution from the Coke Works accounts for more than 90% of hydrogen sulfide gas in the county, according to the health department.
Activists, residents want stricter rules
Jay Ting Walker, advocacy coordinator with the Clean Air Council, is frustrated that the new rules have been watered down. He thinks fines aren’t enough to stop US Steel from polluting, so he organized residents to make their voices heard at the hearing.
“The only way their actions change is when they get bad press in the news. Basically, if they’re embarrassed,” he said. “So hopefully we can get a lot of residents talking with one voice.
A health department spokesperson said it could not make anyone available to speak about the period on Wednesday.
A U.S. Steel spokesperson said in a statement that the new rule proposed by the health department is better than the existing rule or the department’s previous proposals.
Valley Clean Air Now, a group of Clairton residents, held a rally outside the Clairton Municipal Building ahead of the meeting.
Qiyam Ansari, the lead organizer for Valley Clean Air Now, said many Clairton residents aren’t aware of these meetings or don’t understand the new air quality regulations released by the health department. .
“No ordinary person will be able to read this material and understand how it affects their health,” he said. “I think things need to be simplified and explained to people.”
During the hearing, some Mon Valley residents expressed frustration with the actions taken so far by the health department.
“You haven’t fined them enough to get their attention,” Glassport resident David Meckle said. “They have more money than Carter has little liver pills, and you have to take some of their money away from them.”
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Worried about jobs
But some US Steel employees worried that tougher environmental regulations would encourage the company to hire elsewhere.
Don Furko, president of United Steelworkers Local 1557, said he remembers the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry in the 1980s. He fears a similar exodus could happen again.
“US Steel has already made it clear that it has no hesitation in shifting its focus from the Mon Valley to operating where it sees less opposition. They asked to work in cooperation with the Allegheny County Health Department. . . I urge you to work together with the company.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the manufacturing industry employs approximately 83,000 people in the Pittsburgh area. At its peak, manufacturing accounted for over 382,000 jobs in the region.
Allegheny County General Councilman Sam DeMarco and District 9 Councilman Bob Macey echoed similar concerns.
“US Steel Mon Valley Works is the largest industrial employer in Allegheny County. It has provided a stable and reliable source of well-paying jobs for generations of steelworkers, construction trades and local contractors,” DeMarco said. “If the Allegheny County Health Department continues to impose more stringent, subjective and arbitrary regulations at the Clairton Coke Plant, it could jeopardize the future of all of Mon Valley Works and thousands of well-paying jobs it provides.”
Steelworker Joseph Burgess has warned that the plant’s closure could have consequences for the entire region.
“For the Allegheny County Health Department to continue to impose the restrictions on this plant, it will only drive the businesses out of here. And if this place fails, it doesn’t just fail the town of Clairton. It fails in the entire southwest region of this state,” he said, noting that people from as far away as Indiana County work at the Mon Valley facility.
About 700 of the facility’s 3,000 employees live in Mon Valley communities, US Steel said.
Clairton resident Germaine Gooden-Patterson said she felt disheartened by the “blatant disregard” shown for the health and lives of Clairton residents affected by air pollution.
“The health of residents cannot be protected and will not be protected if US Steel only pays quarterly fines instead of reducing emissions violations,” she said. “The health of residents cannot and will not be protected unless Clairton Coke Works’ outdated Title V permit is updated in a way that truly protects residents and is not written in such a way that that US Steel gets a pass to just pay to pollute.”
The county health department will accept public comment on the rules until 4 p.m. on May 17.