Prove your humanity

US Steel is applying for a permit to install new pollution controls at its Clairton Coke Works. But environmental groups say there’s a catch — it could allow two coke-producing units at the plant to emit more pollution.

The new controls would catch more air pollution at units that account for over 300 coke ovens at the plant. They were mandated by a 2019 agreement between US Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department over the company’s poor record of air pollution. 

But because the company is saying that the ovens could process more coke than in previous years, it is listing the actual amount of pollution at the units to be higher.

“The concern is that the Clairton area already has a problem with pollution from this plant” and has had trouble meeting federal air quality standards, said John Baillie, an attorney for the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). “If the pollution increases, of course, that becomes more difficult.”

High Amounts of Pollution

The county’s air monitor near the Clairton plant has some of the highest recorded soot readings east of the Rockies. Though the county recently said it had reached federal ambient air quality standards at the monitor, the EPA has yet to verify those readings. Cold weather inversions have continued to keep thousands in the county exposed to noxious pollution, much of it from the Clairton plant. 

According to the company’s permit application, the total amount of fine particulate pollution, or soot, coming from the units could reach 90.6 tons per year. That would amount to a 12 percent increase over what the company says was the previous limit of pollution coming from those units, 80.8 tons. Soot is linked to multiple heart and lung diseases, and causes 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. every year.  

The number represents a 54 percent increase over the 58.8 tons per year the units averaged in 2017-2018, the highest levels recorded since 2015. 

During 2017-2018, the entire plant averaged 389 tons of particulate emissions a year, far and away the county’s leading stationary source of the pollutant, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection data. 

The permit also allows for an increase in sulfur dioxide, a lung irritant that can make it harder to breathe, especially for people with asthma and other lung conditions.

US Steel spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski said in an e-mail that the purpose of the project is to improve the efficiency of the company’s pollution collection system, not to increase coke production. The new controls will be 95 percent efficient at trapping soot and other pollution, while the old system was 90 percent efficient. 

US Steel does not “have any plans to increase actual production to full design capacity at these emission units,” Malkowski said. “The project decreases emissions on a per ton of production basis.”

New Pollution Amounts Just A Whisker Below Stricter Rules

The company may never reach those thresholds, but GASP thinks the company should have to explain its math — specifically, why it is claiming such a high level of previous capacity at the plant. 

U.S. Steel is using a process in the Clean Air Act called the “Demand Growth Exclusion” to avoid stricter regulations. Big sources of pollution like Clairton aren’t allowed to drastically increase their pollution levels, especially in places like Allegheny County, where air quality fails to meet federal guidelines. 

But if a company claims its past emissions could have been higher if it were operating at full capacity, it is allowed to use those higher “full capacity” emissions numbers as a baseline when applying for a new permit.

In U.S. Steel’s case, if the plant increased emissions by over 10 tons of particle pollution and 40 tons of sulfur dioxide, the company would be subject to “New Source Review” — a more rigorous regulatory regime that involves analysis, public input, and potentially the purchase of pollution offsets. 

But in its current calculations, the company’s “new” yearly emissions rise a total of 9.9 tons for soot pollution; for sulfur dioxide, the “new” emissions could rise by 39.2 tons per year. Both amounts are a whisker under New Source Review thresholds. 

That seems fishy to GASP, and its attorneys have asked Allegheny County to require US Steel to show its math. 

“It kind of looks like they decided ‘we don’t believe we’re triggering [New Source Review] here and we’re just going to … plug numbers into place to make that work,” Baillie said. “The ultimate conclusion that [New Source Review] doesn’t apply might be correct, but they just haven’t proved it.”

Asked about GASP’s concern that the company was reverse-engineering its production numbers to elude greater regulation, Malkowski re-iterated that the “project is an emissions reduction project.  For every ton of coke produced, less PM will be emitted. The project does not increase production.”

Bad Math in the Past

The “Demand Growth Exclusion” has been abused by companies in the past. In 2015, a federal appeals court found that DTE Energy “baldly asserted” demand growth numbers that would have increased pollution limits at a Michigan power plant without documenting to the EPA how it arrived at them. 

The court found that companies need “an adequate paper trail” to allow regulators a chance to evaluate their claims about how high to set its emissions ceiling. “The EPA  cannot evaluate a…claim…unless the operator supplies supporting facts,” the court wrote. 

The Allegheny County Health Department could face a similar decision on the Clairton Coke Works, Baillie said. It could ask U.S. Steel to justify its production and demand growth numbers to prove the need for higher pollution numbers. 

“Hopefully they will make them show their work,” Baillie said. 

Allegheny County health department spokeswoman Amie Downs said county regulators will address questions about the company’s pollution limits in a comment-and-response document in about a month. 

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.