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US Steel appealing nearly $900K air pollution fines

Company says visible emissions violations recorded at Clairton Coke works do not conform to prior settlement

  • Reid Frazier
US Steel's Clairton Coke Works, near Pittsburgh.  Photo: Reid R. Frazier

 Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

US Steel's Clairton Coke Works, near Pittsburgh. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

US Steel says it will appeal $860,000 in fines for alleged air quality violations last year issued by the Allegheny County Health Department. 

The department issued the fines for visible emissions at the company’s Clairton coke works for emissions infractions recorded over the last nine months of 2021. 

The plant is the county’s largest single emitter of particle pollution, hydrogen sulfide and benzene, a known human carcinogen. 

The company says the county’s inspections violate the terms of a June 2019 settlement and will appeal the decision to a hearing officer. In a statement, the company said the inspections “did not conform to the inspection methods to which it agreed” in the June 2019 settlement, “…nor did the inspections generate credible readings.”

When asked how the county’s inspections failed to conform to the terms of the 2019 agreement, US Steel representatives did not immediately respond. 

Citing litigation, a health department spokesman declined comment. 

Combined with a $201,500 fine for the first quarter of 2021, the county levied over $1 million in fines against the plant last year, and $4.3 million since 2017.  

The company has used the June 2019 settlement recently to have stricter regulations on its Clairton Plant thrown out. In January, a hearing officer ruled that stricter coke oven regulations the health department was proposing violated terms of the agreement, which included a $2.7 million fine for the company. 

The Clairton plant is the largest coke making facility in North America, and is a key part of the company’s Mon Valley complex of steel plants near Pittsburgh. 

Environmental groups want the county to enact stricter regulations on the plant. The 1-mile radius around the Clairton plant is in the 95th to 100th percentile for air toxics cancer risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with most of that risk coming from coke oven gas

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said even if the company were to pay the fines, it still operates under a “pay to pollute” enforcement scenario.  

 “U.S. Steel has been paying $200,000-$300,000 per quarter in fines because of ongoing emissions violations at the USS Clairton Coke Works,” Mehalik said, in an emailed statement. “This pattern is unfair to the residents of Allegheny County who pay much higher costs in the form of health impacts.”

In addition to the most recent fines, the county is reviewing the plant’s air quality operating permit. It is also undertaking several steps to try to get the plant to rein in pollution, including creation of an episodic air pollution rule, which asks companies to outline steps to lower emissions during meteorologic events that trap pollution in the Mon Valley.

It is also suing the company, along with several environmental groups and Mon Valley residents, for pollution caused by a 2018 fire and caused pollution in the region to spike. The company determined corroded equipment started the fire. 

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