Prove your humanity

The Allegheny County Health Department hit U.S. Steel with a $1 million fine for chronic air pollution from the company’s Clairton Coke Works.

The fine was the largest the department has leveled against Clairton Coke Works in the past 10 years, and the second largest to any facility in that time period, said spokesman Ryan Scarpino.

The agency issued the fine just two years after signing a consent agreement with the company to clean up the plant’s emissions.

Despite that 2016 agreement, the plant “continues to experience ever-increasing visible emissions and unexplained exceedance,” the agency said in its enforcement order.

The health department says pollution at the plant has gotten worse since 2014. Visible emissions from coke ovens have increased in frequency, leading to dozens of violations. The agency also said U.S. Steel employees tried to mask air violations. In some cases, the county said, employees walked ahead of the county’s inspectors and applied a “mud-like mixture” over potential sources of emissions to temporarily hide pollution.

Clairton is the largest coke plant in the country, and employs 1,000 people. It’s also Allegheny County’s largest source of particulate pollution, which is linked with heart and lung disease, and coke oven emissions, a carcinogenic mix of pollutants.

“I think this is a significant first step in having the county play a heavier hand with polluters to protect air quality,” said Jacquelyn Bonomo, CEO of the environmental group PennFuture, which threatened to sue the coke works in 2016, after the health department found the plant had 6,700 violations over a  3 1/2-year period.

U.S. Steel, which could appeal the fine, says it’s reviewing the order. A spokeswoman declined further comment. The Allegheny County Health Department did not respond to interview requests.

Bonomo said the plant’s emissions degrade air quality, not only in the communities surrounding it, but throughout the Pittsburgh region.

“The emissions from the Clairton Coke Works contain toxic substances and particulates that are very harmful to the air we breathe, particularly for vulnerable folks, our youngest people, the oldest among us, and individuals that have breathing problems because of diseases like asthma.”

The plant processes metallurgical coal into coke, a key component of steelmaking, by baking the coal at high temperatures inside coke batteries.

The agency ordered U.S. Steel to come up with a plan to comply with its air quality permits, including an inventory of all potential pollution sources and how it will address them. If the plant fails to curb emissions from its 10 coke batteries, the agency said it will order the plant to shut down its two worst-performing coke batteries until the company brings the plant into compliance.