Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

Mon Valley air quality advocates are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to contest an operating permit issued to U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.

In a petition for objection filed Monday, the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) asked the federal agency to challenge the plant’s Title V permit, renewed by the Allegheny County Health Department in November.

The permit spells out conditions polluters must meet to stay in line with air quality standards, including annual emissions limits for 15 pollutants and testing and reporting requirements.

A key component in the steelmaking process, the Clairton plant is the largest coke-making facility in North America, and Allegheny County’s single-largest emitter of particle pollution, hydrogen sulfide and benzene, a known human carcinogen.

In 2022, the county levied more than $9 million in fines on the Clairton plant for falling out of compliance on several occasions during the past several years.

What advocates want

But advocates say — while the health department has imposed monetary penalties — the Clairton plant’s latest permit doesn’t hold the company to a plan to remedy the source of the violations, as mandated by federal law.

“What the Clean Air Act requires is, in that situation, the facility has to come up with a compliance schedule that will explain how it intends to get back on the right track and achieve compliance,” said John Baillie, an attorney with GASP.

Baillie said that could include requiring U.S. Steel to make physical changes to its facility, like rebuilding smokestacks or adding a coke oven gas purification scrubber.

County regulators counter criticisms

When criticized during the permit’s public comment period, health department officials pointed to conditions from a 2019 settlement agreement that had been incorporated into the document.

The deal required U.S. Steel to pay $2.7 million in fines and make $200 million worth of improvements to the facility. Those included the installation of air curtains to better capture fugitive emissions and repairing the walls of one of the plant’s 10 coke oven batteries to cut down on emissions leaks.

Health officials said that agreement, along with several others listed in the permit, has its own schedule of compliance that — while not explicitly mentioned — was written into the document’s terms and will be enforced.

The EPA approved the permit during the review process, including its reference to the consent orders and agreements.

“Permits are the regulatory vehicle to protect air quality. However, these vehicles cannot be looked at in a vacuum, not unlike the Air Quality Program, as a whole,” said Geoffrey Rabinowitz, the deputy director for ACHD’s Bureau of Environmental Health, in a statement.

“All of this is to say, a tremendous amount of effort occurs in order to make a single permit or decision,” he added.

Clairton Coke Works’ last Title V permit expired in 2017, but the renewal process was held up by regulatory and operational changes, as well as a 2018 fire at the plant, according to ACHD.

“Since then, the Health Department conducted an extensive internal and external approval process before issuing today’s Title V permit,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald wrote in a memo on the issuance last year.

U.S. Steel appealed the health department’s permit in December, calling its conditions of compliance “an abuse of the Department’s discretion.”

In a statement Tuesday, spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski said the company is reviewing GASP’s petition and that its more than 3,000 employees in the Mon Valley “remain dedicated to environmental performance and operational success.”

GASP’s lawyers, meanwhile, expect a ruling from the EPA on its petition in the next six to eight months.