Prove your humanity

A hearing officer has sided with U.S. Steel in the company’s challenge to Allegheny County’s proposed coke oven regulations.

The company argued that the proposal violates the terms of a 2019 settlement it reached with the county health department over pollution from its Clairton Coke Works.

The county issued new coke oven regulations in November 2020 to lower limits on the plant’s emissions of hydrogen sulfide, a gas that produces a rotten egg smell, and to add several sulfur-based compounds to the list of regulated pollutants. It also set new limits for “pushing” and “topside” emissions – pollution released during the processing of coal into coke, a key component of steelmaking.

But U.S. Steel argued the new rules contradicted the 2019 settlement, in which the county agreed to limits on future coke oven regulations. The county agreed it wouldn’t place further restrictions on coke oven emissions unless those new rules were required by state law,  were “technically feasible” to implement, and the county could demonstrate they would have a “measurable reduction” on local air pollution. In exchange, U.S. Steel agreed to pay a $2.7 million fine.

The county hearing officer, Max Slater, agreed with the company, and blocked parts of the rule from going forward.

“(T)he Department cannot unilaterally back out of a binding contract that it agreed to,” Slater wrote in a Dec. 6 ruling, which was first reported by the Pittsburgh Business Times through a Right-to-Know request.

While blocking the new hydrogen sulfide limits and regulations for the added sulfur compounds, Slater’s ruling did allow the new pushing and topside emissions limits to proceed.

Amanda Malkowski, a U.S. Steel spokeswoman, says the company “greatly respect(s)” the decision.

The county will not appeal the decision in state court, said Chris Togneri, a spokesman for the health department. “We will comply with the hearing officer’s decision,” Togneri said in an email.

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said his and other environmental groups opposed the 2019 settlement because they worried it would tie the county’s hands if it wanted to impose stricter rules on the company.

“It was a self-imposed limit on its own ability to protect public health and should never have been agreed to in the first place,“ Mehalik said. “We expected an outcome like this because we spoke out against that agreement two and a half years ago. Our reaction to this is we saw this coming. So we’re not surprised by it at all.”

Mehalik said the new coke oven rules are necessary because the plant routinely causes high levels of hydrogen sulfide in the region.

The plant’s emissions led to 54 exceedances of state limits of hydrogen sulfide gas last year at nearby air monitors, according to county data. According to state data, Clairton coke works accounts for 93 percent of all reported hydrogen sulfide emissions in Allegheny County, and 72 percent of all emissions of the pollutant reported in the state.

Exposure to hydrogen sulfide can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat, as well as breathing problems, headaches, and tiredness.

Mehalik said the new pushing and topside regulations “will help some,” but will not “eliminate the problems” of air pollution from the plant.

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.