Prove your humanity

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ordering Allegheny County to rewrite its air permit for U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.

Environmental groups petitioned EPA to object to U.S. Steel’s operating permit, issued by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) last November. The Group Against Smog and Pollution, PennFuture, Environmental Integrity Project, and Clean Air Council argued the permit fails to establish testing, monitoring and reporting requirements to ensure compliance with emissions limits for several pollutants.

EPA agreed.

EPA directed the county to either revise the permit or justify the testing and monitoring requirements set by its current permit.

“We’re happy that the EPA has agreed with us,” said PennFuture senior attorney Angela Kilbert. “And we’re hopeful that Allegheny County Health Department will revise the permit to include more robust monitoring and testing for these pollutants to ensure that U.S. Clairton Coke Works is actually in compliance with its emissions limitations.”

The plant is North America’s largest producer of coke, a key component of steelmaking. The facility makes 13,000 tons of coke per day by baking coal at high temperatures and is by far Allegheny County’s largest single source of several pollutants. In 2022, the county levied more than $9 million in fines on the Clairton plant for clean air violations.

According to the EPA, the facility is a major source of carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, sulfur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs).

The environmental groups argued in their petition that the permit is too lax because it fails to provide enough testing and monitoring guidelines to ensure the plant complies with hourly and annual emissions limits of particulate matter for four boilers at the plant.

Particulate matter (PM) contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets tiny enough to be inhaled and cause serious health problems, sometimes getting deep into the lungs and bloodstream, according to the EPA. Larger particles, referred to as PM10, can irritate the eyes, nose and throat.

The environmental groups noted that ACHD’s permit for U.S. Steel requires the facility to conduct stack tests for PM and PM10 once every two years, without any other testing or monitoring requirements.

They argued that biennial stack tests – conducted every other year – are not frequent enough to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act,” citing previous federal case law. 

Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs said the health department is not commenting on the EPA decision at this time, until it has time to review it and draft a response.

According to the EPA order, ACHD has previously stated that 2018 stack tests showed the boilers were in compliance with PM and PM10  emission limits.

“Since the permit lacks any monitoring in between stack tests, it is unclear how compliance (with clean air rules) will be demonstrated,” states the EPA order, signed by Administrator Michael Regan.

“We hope the measures required by that compliance schedule finally bring the facility into compliance with the Clean Air Act,” said John Baillie, senior attorney at GASP, in a statement.

“More than anything, we hope the end result is improved air quality for the Mon Valley and beyond. Residents have suffered long enough from emissions issues and air pollution events at that plant. We’re glad EPA agrees that enough is enough.”

U.S. Steel did not respond immediately to a request for comment.