Prove your humanity

Two lawsuits announced this week stem from air pollution problems tied to the steel industry.

In one, PennFuture, the Sierra Club and other groups seek to force the Environmental Protection Agency to update its standards for coke ovens across the country.

The other comes from an East Pittsburgh woman who filed a class action suit on behalf of Mon Valley residents following December’s fire that damaged pollution controls at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works near Pittsburgh.

The PennFuture suit against EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler focuses on two standards that have to do with how coke oven facilities are operated. Coal is baked in ovens at high temperatures to form coke, which is then used to make steel.

Emissions from coke ovens can cause cancer, and they sometimes escape through leaky doors and other parts of plants. Allegheny County health officials have fined U.S. Steel more than $2 million over the past year for emissions violations at the Clairton plant.

Other communities near coke ovens face similar issues, and environmental and health advocacy groups in Alabama and Louisiana are part of the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where the Sierra Club is headquartered.

The standards targeted by the suit took effect in 2005. The EPA was supposed to review them after eight years, but it never did, said Tosh Sagar, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups.

“Fourteen years have passed and they haven’t done anything since, so the point of this lawsuit is to get the EPA to do its job to study the problem and figure out what additional protections should be put in place,” he said.

The review process involves consulting with the steel industry to determine the best practices and technologies in place at coke ovens, Sagar said.

A lawyer for PennFuture said the group would also be involved in that process.

“Most important for us is making sure that the air quality for those in the communities surrounding these facilities is sufficient,” staff attorney Alice Baker said.

The EPA said it does not comment on pending litigation. A U.S. Steel spokesperson said the company is reviewing the complaint and “will respond appropriately and in accordance with court requirements.”

The suit follows several recent cases where the EPA admitted it failed to update standards for air pollutants, Sagar said. Those pollutants come from industries ranging from copper smelting to spandex production to boat manufacturing.

“This is part of a long pattern where EPA has these deadlines to update standards for different types of industrial sources, and they’ve repeatedly and routinely failed to do that,” Sagar said.

Separate from the PennFuture complaint, Linda Hernandez of East Pittsburgh has filed a class action lawsuit against U.S. Steel on behalf of every resident of 22 Mon Valley communities affected by the fire at Clairton.

For over three months, the Clairton plant could not process coke oven gas through its normal desulfurization controls. It released five times more sulfur dioxide that permitted by the Allegheny County Health Department, according to the department’s calculations. Repairs on the equipment were completed earlier this month.

According to the complaint, filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Hernandez noticed chemical and sulfur smells on Christmas Eve after the fire. She experienced a burning throat, difficulty breathing, a headache and coughing. Some of those health problems persisted, limiting her activities outdoors. Other Mon Valley residents reported the same health problemsfollowing the fire, the complaint says.

The suit says U.S. Steel was negligent by failing in its duty to residents to exercise care in preventing offensive odors and noxious emissions, interfering with the “use and enjoyment of their properties.” It says the company did not develop adequate policies to prevent the fire, and it did not have a backup plan to control the release of gases.

The suit seeks unspecified damages to compensate residents, as well as punitive damages.

A U.S. Steel spokesperson said the company does not comment on active litigation, but said more information about the fire and repairs is available on the steel-maker’s website.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.