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The Battle to Breathe in the Mon Valley

A myriad of environmental law violations continues to plague Western Pennsylvania

U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works facility. Photo by Jordan Slobodinsky

By Jordan Slobodinsky

Melanie Meade has been monitoring toxic emissions from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke works for years, but she had no idea she was breathing high levels of cancer-causing toxins for two weeks beginning on Christmas Eve after a massive fire in the mill.

After living in Clairton his whole life Kelly Nelson has a deep love for his beleaguered community, but he remains outraged that on Christmas Eve, no one warned Mon Valley residents about the incident that dumped sulfur dioxide into the air in violation of all air quality standards.

John Macus was having dinner at his mother’s house on Christmas eve, but he had no idea that his house was being blasted with sulfur dioxide, despite his efforts to warn the Allegheny Health Department (ACHD) that the Coke Works facility was poisoning the air near his home.

But that was exactly what happened to them and hundreds of thousands of others in the region when a fire tore into two gas dispatcher stations at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works — forcing dangerous toxins into the air.  The residents remain outraged because — other than a single Facebook message — no one told them about the dangers they faced. Meade, Nelson and Macus are now asking for immediate change, while the Group Against Smog and Pollution, a local environmental group are advocating for ACHD to come down on the plant.

“I think they are all a joke, I think they are all getting paid off. For them to pay people and to pay the fines, it is easier than to correct the issue,” said Macus about the lack of awareness made by the ACHD and U.S. Steel.

On Christmas Eve, a massive fire broke out at the Clairton facility early in the morning causing a large amount of Sulfur Dioxide to leak into the air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later said the emissions nearly doubled the legal amount allowed into the air. However, it would not be until 16 days later that residents of 22 Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods were warned to stay indoors to avoid harm.

According to the ACHD, the first sign of sulfur dioxide violations was detected on December 26. The legal levels for air pollution were violated twice that day. Two days later, on December 28, ACHD’s air monitor that was closest to the plant detected Sulfur Dioxide levels at nearly double the maximum hourly safety threshold. The levels were again violated on January 3 and 8.

“We have been closely monitoring this issue since we were first notified of the fire on December 24.” said Allegheny Health Department Deputy Director for Environmental Health Jim Kelly in a statement.

Allegheny Health Department’s initial release to the public

Not a single text, call, or email was sent to residents of the Mon-Valley, who were breathing the deadly air. Two days later the first signs of high sulfur dioxide levels were detected by the ACHD. This would happen four more times before people were notified about the fire and air quality via a singular Facebook post on the ACHD page on Jan. 9. Meade, who is a Facebook user, not only was frustrated by not being notified but was also concerned about her community following the initial post.

“I don’t just care about my community, I care about the people who work there,” Meade said. “I mean I have relatives that have worked there, and I know that they had black lung. It is not that I would want to take anyone’s job, but I am not foolish enough to believe that any job is worth death or killing others.”

She has raised a family of two sons in the area she has come to call home, and even lives directly behind the giant plant. Meade tries to involve her community so there can be action taken against the facility and the pollution the plant produces. Despite her actions, she says she feels that the local government has taken little to no effort in trying to stop the facility from abusing the community and its members.

It was not until Feb. 28 — 66 days after the incident — that the health department ordered U.S. Steel to rid high levels of sulfur dioxide from the air.

According to an ACHD enforcement letter, U.S. Steel was given five options by the ACHD. Reduce the volume of coal in each coke oven, further extend coking times to 30-36 hours, put as many coke oven batteries as necessary under “hot idle”, or propose their own plan to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The order was appealed by U.S. Steel, and is still going through the appeals process before a final decision can be made. A link to the enforcement order can be found here.

“The elected officials we have, they have to work so hard to protect the Clairton Coke Works. They cannot focus on the other public health issues that we suffer from in our community,” said Meade. “I just think it is because some people who are leading, they do not care. That is not their agenda. Their agenda is not focused on the health and well-being of the citizens.”

To that end, Meade can certainly make a case for her argument. The Christmas Eve fire and gas leakage is just the latest in a string of incidents for the Clairton facility. Just last year the plant was fined $1 million for air pollution and $620,316 for emission problems, including the release of gasses that are cancer-causing. U.S. Steel was fined another $700,000 on April 3 for similar pollution violations.

Nelson has spent most of his life in Clairton, other than a brief period away from the area from 2006-2016. He says he knows that the facility and what it does is just a part of everyday life in the area. Breathing this toxic air for 16 days and not being notified, is something Nelson finds to be absurd.

“It is irresponsible of the plant, it is irresponsible of Allegheny County Health, it is irresponsible of our city leaders not to tell us that we cannot breathe,” said Nelson. “How come that information was not distributed immediately? That is something so outrageous, they could not hide it, and they still hid it for two weeks.”

In the enforcement letter issued by the ACHD they note the exceedances made by U.S. Steel. According to the report it was determined that U.S. Steel made apparent efforts to avoid making further exceedances.

Even though a warning would be beneficial to the community, Nelson says he does not believe the community would have adjusted. Just two years ago, an ACHD study found that 18% of children at Clairton Elementary school have asthma. According to the American Lung Association, people with asthma can find extreme difficulty breathing when exposed to the gas.

“Just be responsible members of the community. You cannot keep trying to profit and keep killing us. This is America, you are not allowed to violate laws set by the EPA just for profit,” said Nelson. “I just want to breathe, just some days the air is just so bad.”

According to the ACHD website, anyone who is having trouble breathing or suffering symptoms sulfur dioxide emissions should report these issues by calling the ACHD at (412)-697-2243. That is exactly what Macus has said he has done before, but he has had little to no help from the ACHD.

“I call the [Allegheny County] health department religiously. They are a joke,” said Macus.

He says that when he spoke with someone from the ACHD on the phone, that he was told U.S. Steel has still not paid fines for pollution violations from 2016. The employee cited that they were still going through the appeals process. Due to the lack of action from the ACHD, Macus says he has spent countless days smelling grotesque odors in the air and battling to keep his home free of toxic chemicals like sulfur dioxide. The biggest problem for Macus, he lives a mere 4 minutes from the facility.

“What needs to happen is the plant needs to shut down. They are not complying,” said Macus. “If these people around here only knew why when they wake up they have a shortness of breath, their kids have asthma, they got migraine headaches. When you can taste a chemical in the air, your body is filtering that out.”

Macus says due to the sheer amount of unhealthy air he breathes in; his kidneys will sometimes hurt. The best description he gives to the symptoms of breathing in this kind of air, is a flu-like feeling. Macus says he has had friends work at the mill who have told him about violations that are made when employees are supposed to be cleaning coke batteries.

“I know people that have worked there, and they tell about doors in the plant that have to open in which gasses could escape. A buddy of mine told me that there are gaskets on these doors that you have to scrape, and if they had ten or twenty to do, they would skip some,” said Macus.

To protect himself, Macus contacted ACHD and was given an air monitor. He says along with sulfur dioxide, the monitor picked up traceable amounts of benzene and toluene. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) benzene can have harmful effects on bone marrow and a decrease in red blood cells, while toluene can have harmful effects in the liver, kidneys, and lungs.

“A couple of weeks ago, as I am driving to go jog, and they always say its steam coming out of the mill, this stuff was as black as night. It turned a smoke-bomb yellow in the sky. So, I called the ACHD, and they told me it was raw coke oven gas.” said Macus.

Macus was also made aware of infrared video evidence of air pollution from a friend. Below is a video courtesy of Earthworls, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to protect communities and environments from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions. In a description of what they found, Earthworks had this to say about their findings in Clairton.

“Community members alerted Earthworks to heavily increased flaring at the Irvin Steelworks plant as part of emergency operating conditions resulting from a fire at a connected facility, the Clairton Coke Plant, in December 2018. Locals in several nearby communities have expressed growing concern about the air quality, and health officials have gathered evidence elevated pollution levels in the area. Earthworks’ investigation with optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras on March 11, 2019 detected significant plumes of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) coming from the flares. The OGI camera is an industry-standard tool for visualizing air pollution from oil and gas development, and Earthworks’ camera operators are trained and certified to differentiate these gases from heat.

The Group Against Smog & Pollution (GASP), a local Pittsburgh environmental group, has been monitoring the laws that the facility has been breaking for years. The Clean Air Act is supposed to be protecting the environment and people of the area from harmful pollution, yet this most recent fire and the resulting gas leaked into the air has violated the act.

“The bottom line that U.S. Steel needs to figure out how to operate a coke plant without breaking the law,” said GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini. “U.S. Steel should not be allowed to pay to pollute. The Allegheny County Health Department’s enforcement actions need to lead to long term, comprehensive improvements at the facility, not short-term band-aids.”

To put in perspective, according to the American Lung Association’s “state of the air” report, Bangor Maine has the cleanest recorded air and has an A in each category. Allegheny County and surrounding Pittsburgh areas have failed every category.

According to both GASP and the ACHD, the biggest concern for this most recent incident is the high levels of sulfur dioxide being leaked into the air. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sulfur Dioxide is a colorless gas with a choking or suffocating odor. The gas is produced during the process at the Clairton facility. Sulfur Dioxide can lead to respiratory issues, it is not clear if any other gasses were leaked because of the fire.

“Legislators need to hold U.S. Steel accountable and empower the Allegheny County Health Department to be a strong enforcement agency,” said Filippini. “They should support ACHD when they take strong enforcement against any polluter and call them out when they do not.”

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