By Rebecca Addison
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
At 4 a.m. on Dec. 24, a fire ripped through U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works facility. By the time it was finally extinguished five hours later, the mechanical fire had badly damaged the facility’s coke gas processing system, discharging high levels of sulfur dioxide emissions into the air.
Several residents in the surrounding communities didn’t see or hear the blast that rocked the Clairton facility. But they could feel it. And in the months since, Clairton residents and those living as far away as Squirrel Hill say they’ve also felt the impact of the pollution the fire dumped into their air. That morning, some people experienced respiratory issues and woke up with headaches. Others had to be hospitalized in the following weeks.
The pollution levels spurred by the fire triggered a 22-community-wide air-quality alert. Soon after, the Allegheny County Health Department issued an advisory urging people with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions, along with children and elderly residents, to limit outdoor activity.
In the aftermath, U.S. Steel said they’d spend $40 million to fix the damage caused by the fire and repair the broken gas processing system. Some called for a shutdown while repairs were made, but U.S. Steel declined.
“U.S. Steel is employing significant resources around the clock to investigate the incident,” U.S. Steel Plant Manager Michael Rhoads said in a January letter to Allegheny County. “While the investigation is being completed, we have expended substantial resources and costs to employ mitigation efforts to reduce any potential impact from the incident.”
Then, last week, just two months after repairs from the first fire had been completed, another blast tore through the Clairton Coke Works facility.
“They’ve had a second fire in less than six months,” Dave Smith, outreach coordinator for Clean Air Council, said at a June 20 press conference. “They are not addressing the problems.”
Smith was one of several protestors who gathered in front of U.S. Steel’s corporate headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh last week. The group criticized the corporation not only for the recent fires, but also for what they see as a failure to protect Allegheny County residents from the pollution caused by their facility.
“We are here to hold them accountable, to call for transparency and to ask for an independent investigation of this plant so the public can know what’s going on because we don’t trust U.S. Steel to do that,” Smith said. “If this industry can’t clean up their mess, someone else needs to… If their employees had been in the plant on Dec. 24 when that huge explosion took place, there would have been hundreds of people killed. We’re concerned about workers. We’re concerned about citizens.”
U.S. Steel has long been criticized for the negative impact its facilities have had on the health of Allegheny County residents and the environment. Activists say the recent fires are indicative of larger problems at the Clairton plant. They say outdated equipment has exacerbated the county’s already poor air quality and they want U.S. Steel to make necessary upgrades to reduce their environmental impact or close the plant down.
“We no longer need discussion or a debate,” Clairton resident Melanie Meade said at last week’s press conference. “We already know that their pollution has caused great harm. We already know that there have been lives lost because of this pollution and we know that those currently living within the pollution are being affected.”
Meade has lived in Clairton most of her life. A mother of two and grandmother to two more children, Meade has long been concerned about the pollution emanating from Clairton Coke Works. The recent fires have only intensified those concerns.
“Some of the people in the community were getting sick and being hospitalized and didn’t know why,” Meade tells the Pittsburgh Current. “My youngest was experiencing severe allergies during the winter when the first fire took place. It was strange. I didn’t realize why he was sneezing so much and having allergies. I got worried about giving him so much allergy medicine and a lot of times it didn’t seem to lessen the symptoms.”
Meade says pollution from the plant has an irreparable impact on the lives of children living in the Clairton community. According to a 2018 report, children at Clairton Elementary School have roughly double the asthma rates of other Pennsylvania children. Meade says the more she learns, the less likely she is to let her kids play outside.
“It’s very disturbing because you have to tell children they can’t do what they’re supposed to be doing which is playing outside and being curious,” says Meade, who is currently working on a doctoral degree in naturopathy. “We can’t do the things I would like them to do, like go to the playground. You can’t play outside without being concerned about the environmental harm.”
Over the past year, Allegheny County health officials have levied more than $2 million in fines against U.S. Steel for emissions violations, including a $700,000 fine in April for continued pollution from its three Mon Valley factories. However, Meade says the fines are insignificant and fail to address systemic problems at the plant.
“These fines are so small compared to their revenue. People are suffering. When I hear sirens now, I get concerned that something major is happening at the plant,” Meade says. “How many of these accidents are because of fixes that should’ve been made? Why are we trying to put bandaids on 100-year-old equipment? Get rid of it and rebuild something new so that we can breathe and our children can have a better quality of life.”
Meade is one of several residents involved in a class action lawsuit alleging negligence by U.S. Steel. The lawsuit, filed in April seeks damages to compensate residents, as well as punitive damages. The funds could go toward preventative measures like residential filter fans to protect homes from pollution. On June 18, a judge approved the Allegheny County Health Department’s request to join the federal lawsuit alongside environmental groups Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment.
“Joining this action will ensure the strongest case possible is brought against U.S. Steel,” county health department officials said in a statement. “After reviewing the initial filing, our legal counsel determined that collaborating with the citizens’ groups would increase the resources available to the department and allow for the best possible outcome of our enforcement action for public health and impacted residents.”
In May, U.S. Steel announced it would be making a $1 billion investment in it’s Mon Valley facilities. The corporation claims the investment will allow them to produce sustainable steel, while improving their environmental performance and energy conservation and reducing their “carbon footprint associated with Mon Valley Works.”
“U. S. Steel’s investment in leading technology and advanced manufacturing aligns with our vision to be the industry leader in delivering high-quality, value-added products and innovative solutions that address our customers’ most challenging steel needs for the future,” U.S. Steel President and CEO David Burritt, said in a statement. “We believe that adding sustainable steel technology to our footprint will create long-term value for our employees, our region, our customers and our investors.”
However, activists say the newly announced investment will do little to address issues at Clairton Coke Works.
“U.S. Steel has pledged that they’re going to invest a billion dollars, but what they didn’t say is most of that money isn’t going to Clairton Coke Works,” says Kelly Yagatich, Southwest PA outreach coordinator for Clean Air Council. “U.S. Steel keeps saying they’re going to decrease emissions and improve air quality, but they’re not really investing in the part of the plant that has been the problem.”
Yagatich says problems at the plant lie with the operation of its coke batteries. Each battery includes several ovens that bake coal at high temperatures to remove impurities, turning it into coke which is used to make steel. This process generates gas, containing pollutants such as particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, benzene and toluene. Gas leaks are common at facilities like this, but activists say due to the age of equipment at the Clairton plant, the leaks are more widespread.
Activists say this is why Allegheny County ranks so poorly when it comes to air quality. A 2005 National Air Toxics Assessment report listed Clairton as having the 3rd highest rate of cancer risk from air pollutants in the nation. And a 2011 report ranked Allegheny County in the top 2 percent of risk nationally.
“There are people living in the shadow of this facility who have experienced negative impacts because of this. There are a number of people who have had cancer, who have had relatives who have died from cancer and lung diseases,” Yagatich says. “We all share the same air. It’s not like Clairton Coke Works’ emissions stay in Clairton. It’s the largest polluter in the region.”
Pollution from Clairton Coke Works doesn’t just impact residents in the nearby community. It impacts residents throughout Allegheny County, including those living in the Squirrel Hill. Among them is Howard Rieger, a Squirrel Hill resident and former president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“Our city is so proud to announce that tech companies have moved here. But our city doesn’t say a word about how we’re in the bottom seven percent of counties in the United States of America for air quality,” Rieger said at the June 20 press conference.
Rieger has lived in Pittsburgh since 1981, but from 2004 to 2011 he lived in New York City and he says there’s a noticeable difference in the air quality of the two cities.
“I’m a daily runner. I never missed a day running in New York City because the air smelled or because I had a breathing issue. In Pittsburgh, I’ve missed too many days to count,” Reiger said. “We know what the problem is…Some of our officials have been holding listening sessions. I say the time for listening is over, the time for action is now.”
Ruth Fauman-Fichman, another Squirrel Hill resident says her health has suffered as a result of pollution from the facility.
“The behavior of U.S. Steel Clairton is a stain on Pittsburgh’s moniker as a livable city. I’ve lived here since 1980 and have suffered from countless nights woken up by headaches, sore throat and burning sinuses. I check the air before I go out to exercise or walk to see if I can stand it,” Fauman-Fichman said at the press conference. “Indeed, I awoke in the middle of the night Monday, June 17 with a headache and burning sinuses. Only later did I find out they were caused by another fire in the same location at the Clairton works as the December 24 fire.”
Following last week’s fire the ACHD issued an order requiring U.S. Steel to repair Clairton Coke Works processing systems within 20 days. The corporation was required to submit a plan for repairs within 24 hours. If the requirements laid out in the order are not met, Clairton Coke Works faces a potential shutdown.
“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,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The health of the people of Clairton and surrounding communities, and the U.S. Steel employees, is too important to do otherwise.”
But despite the actions of local authorities, many residents worry U.S. Steel won’t clean up its act. Moving forward, they’re calling for an independent review of the facility.
“It’s difficult for me to believe that U.S. Steel will stop fowling the air. Both of my children have abandoned Pittsburgh and I believe they are healthier for it,” says Fauman-Fichman. “To make Pittsburgh livable, U.S. Steel must focus on the pollutants we can not see or smell, or shut down those batteries for good.”