Prove your humanity

The Allegheny County Health Department has fined U.S. Steel $700,000 for ongoing emissions problems at its coke-making plant in Clairton near Pittsburgh.

The fine covers violations at the Clairton Plant during the second half of 2018. It comes after two other significant fines last year for similar problems after inspectors noted an uptick in leaks of coke oven gas. U.S. Steel has appealed both penalties, and a spokesperson says it’s reviewing the latest fine.

The problems associated with the penalties are unrelated to a December fire that damaged pollution controls at the plant. Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health for the county health department, said they have to do with the operation of Clairton’s batteries.

Each battery has several ovens that bake coal at high temperatures to remove impurities. The resulting coke is used to make steel, but the process also generates gas.

Kelly said there are thousands of places at the facility where emissions could potentially leak.

“One of the biggest problems is leaking doors,” Kelly said. “The problems with those leaky doors is that’s raw coke oven gas that’s coming out of there.”

He said the gas contains pollutants such as particulate matter and hydrogen sulfide, as well as toxins such as benzene and toluene.

June 2018 order from the health department required the company to rein in its emissions. If the company does not comply, the agency said it would idle several of Clairton’s batteries.

Kelly said violations have dropped since issuing that order after they peaked at 169 during the second quarter of 2018. The most recent data for the last quarter of the year shows 75 violations, he said.

“Those violations are improving,” he said. “We are seeing fewer violations and therefore each quarter hopefully we will see a lower penalty assessed.”

He said several factors could be helping, including more training for Clairton’s workers and better maintenance of the batteries.

“Batteries operate at really high temperatures, so a lot of equipment gets deformed (and) bends,” Kelly said.

Meghan Cox, a spokesperson for U.S. Steel, said in a statement that the facility is working with state and local officials to protect jobs and the environment.

“We are committed to improving the environmental performance of our Clairton Plant and are actively working to do so,” she said.

Meanwhile, work continues at Clairton to repair the facility’s pollution controls after a fire damaged the equipment that processes its coke oven gas. Air monitors in the Mon Valley have recorded several spikes in sulfur dioxide since the fire occurred on Dec. 24.

Kelly said the work is ahead of schedule. The health department last month ordered the repaired equipment to be fully operational by April 15.