Prove your humanity

A new rule finalized by the EPA last month will require U.S. Steel and other companies around the country to set up fenceline monitoring for air pollution around its coke plants.

The rule means that US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke plant in the U.S., will have to set up a network of air monitors to record benzene levels around the 392-acre site

If the plant exceeds a maximum benzene threshold established by the new rule, it will have to take action to lower its emissions. 

In addition, the rule sets new limits on leaks, visible emissions and hazardous air pollution at the nation’s 12 remaining coke-making plants. 

The rules were lauded by public health advocates.

“It’s not perfect, but it is a huge step,” said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, Pennsylvania coordinator of community outreach for the Environmental Integrity Project. 

“I’m hopeful that having these requirements added into a rule is going to create more oversight, more accountability and hopefully tighten up some of the pollution that’s coming from a plant like the Clairton Coke Works,” Graves-Marcucci said. 

The EPA said the rule would impose minimal costs on the steel industry, which relies on coke to make certain grades of steel.  

Amanda Malkowski, a spokesperson for U.S. Steel, said in a statement that the company was “concerned” that the rule’s new limits for hazardous pollutants like arsenic and hydrogen cyanide would impose new costs on its operations.

“(I)t imposes unachievable new limits for certain processes and controls,” Malkowski said. “There are no proven controls that have been demonstrated to meet the limits, and any controls used to attempt to meet the limits would result in unprecedented costs and potentially unintended adverse environmental impacts.”

Coke is used in a blast furnace to process iron ore into steel. It is made by heating coal to high temperatures, and the subsequent emissions are classified as carcinogens. 

US Steel’s Clairton plant is the largest coke works in North America and by far the largest source of benzene and other pollutants in Allegheny County. 

Numerous public health studies in the region have shown the plant’s impact on surrounding communities.

One study documented increased asthma episodes after a 2018 fire at the plant knocked out its pollution controls. Another found that children living near Clairton and other U.S. Steel plants in the Mon Valley had “nearly triple” the national asthma rate, with the highest rates among African-American children.

For these reasons, Graves-Marcucci was relieved the EPA kept the monitoring requirement in the final rule despite industry and political pressure.

“They did not take any of that fenceline monitoring out, so we feel this is an important step in the right direction,” she said.

Political opposition to the rule

Several U.S. Senators, including Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman and Bob Casey, both Democrats, lobbied President Biden against the coke oven rules and two others that affected the steel industry. In a letter, they warned the rules could leave steel companies “no choice but to prematurely shutter mills, resulting in job losses and irreparable harm to their local communities.”

The senators also argued the rules would hinder the pursuit of a more climate-friendly steel industry, which accounts for about 7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

“If companies spend billions of dollars complying with these new, ill-fitting mandates, they will not have the financial capacity to invest in alternative, breakthrough decarbonization technologies,” the senators wrote.

Neither Fetterman nor Casey responded to requests for comment on the final rule. 

Despite the fears of added costs for steelmakers, the EPA estimated the total costs for the final rule would total only $4 million a year for the industry, mainly in new testing requirements. 

“All covered facilities are expected to already have…emissions levels that are below the final limits, based on facility data available to the EPA,” the agency wrote in the rule

U.S. Steel’s Malkowski said in an email the EPA’s estimates were based on “very limited and, in some cases, no data” from coke plants it surveyed. “The EPA looked at snapshots of a few facilities, which are not necessarily representative” of the rest of the industry, she said.

In response, Shayla Powell, an EPA spokesperson, said in an email that the agency “carefully considered the cost and benefits of these final amendments and worked with stakeholders to gather feedback” in determining the new standards for coke plants. 

 “By using all the data available to EPA and employing standard procedures for [technology] development, the new…limits were developed for the entire industry,” Powell said.

Benzene monitoring requirements

The final rule softened an initial draft of the fenceline monitoring requirements. The initial rule would have mandated companies take action if any of their monitors recorded a 12-month average of 3 micrograms of benzene per cubic meter. But the final rule backed off that requirement, making the action level at 7 micrograms per cubic meter. 

Once a monitor registers a 12-month average above that level, the facility must conduct a root-cause analysis of any problems leading to such high levels and devise a plan to lower emissions. 

In testing mandated by the EPA, fenceline monitors around the Clairton plant in 2022 and 2023 averaged between 2.4 and 32 micrograms per cubic meter of benzene. Environmental groups found benzene levels in surrounding communities between 2.99 and 16.7 micrograms per cubic meter over two-week periods in 2021 and 2022. However, the long-term average readings recorded by the groups were lower, between 1.59 and 4.74 micrograms per cubic meter, below the new “action” level of 7. 

Barring a court-imposed injunction, companies must comply with the fenceline monitoring requirement of the rule beginning next year and the emissions limits by late 2025 or early 2026.