Prove your humanity

The last few weeks saw some big news in air quality for the Pittsburgh region.

Late last month, U.S. Steel reached a landmark settlement with environmental groups and the Allegheny County Health Department over the 2018 Christmas Eve fire at the Clairton Coke Works that knocked out pollution controls.

Then, last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule for soot pollution in ambient air and also agreed with environmental groups in ordering Allegheny County to revise its air permit for U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant.

The Allegheny Front host Kara Holsopple sat down with energy reporter Reid Frazier to discuss the highlights of this air quality news and how it impact could Pittsburgh’s air. 

LISTEN to their conversation

EPA’s new soot standard

New EPA rule could rein in air pollution in Western Pennsylvania


Kara Holsopple: Soot is the common name for PM 2.5 or particulate matter that’s 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller from sources like vehicles that run on fossil fuels and industrial smokestacks. The EPA’s new annual air quality standard is 9 micrograms per cubic meter, down from 12.

Reid, how significant is this rule?

Reid Frazier: Very significant. PM 2.5 has long been known to be bad for our health and kill people. Millions of people around the world die from soot every year. This rule, by EPA’s estimates, would save 4,500 lives a year throughout the U.S. by 2032. 

Soot is linked to lots of really persistent and bad diseases, like heart and lung diseases, asthma and others. So this could be very significant, especially in poorer communities and communities of color, which are more likely to live near sources of PM 2.5 and to live with dirtier air than wealthier and whiter communities. 

And it would have an impact, most likely on Allegheny County, which is one of seven counties in Pennsylvania that currently aren’t meeting the new standard. Allegheny County has the highest soot level in the state, at about 11 micrograms per cubic meter. That could mean that companies in Allegheny County would have to comply with stricter air emission standards going forward. 

Kara Holsopple: Do environmentalists and public health experts think this is enough? 

Reid Frazier: Environmentalists and public health experts were in favor of this new standard. EPA had suggested a few years ago that the soot standard be lowered from 12 to somewhere between a range of 8 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter. And so this could have been less stringent. 

The World Health Organization standard is five micrograms per cubic meter. Most places in the U.S. are already meeting this 9 micrograms per cubic meter [standard]. But in industrialized places, a lot of agricultural counties in California, a lot of people are living with air that is above the new standard, what these scientists have deemed is healthy. 

Kara Holsopple: What do the industries that will be impacted by the tightened regulations say? 

Reid Frazier: They don’t like it. A lot of these industries say this will push manufacturing away from the United States and into countries with more lax air pollution laws. 

In its reaction to the news of the new standard, U.S. Steel said that the Trump administration had deemed 12 micrograms per cubic meter a protective standard. What they didn’t say is that the Trump administration basically ignored its own scientists when keeping the standard at 12 micrograms [per cubic meter]. And it’s entirely possible that some of these bigger industry groups will sue the EPA and try to block the rule from going into effect.

EPA rejects U.S. Steel permit

EPA sends U.S. Steel air pollution permit back to the drawing board

Kara Holsopple: EPA has also decided on a specific Pittsburgh area air quality issue. It recently ordered Allegheny County to revise its air permit for U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant, after environmental groups objected to the permit that was issued in August. What kinds of changes to the permit do they want to see? 

Reid Frazier:  The groups objected to the permit because it would set a rolling 12-month average or even a daily average for certain pollutants in certain parts of the plant, but it would only require periodic testing for those pollutants in that part of the plant, every two, four or five years. 

They said, if you have a daily standard, how are you going to tell if the plant is actually meeting those standards with a test every few years? It doesn’t make sense. And the EPA agreed with them. 

So what a new permit condition might be is more frequent testing of the air pollutants at Edgar Thomson plant. EPA also made a similar finding with the U.S. Steel Clairton coke plant air permit a few months ago. And so, both of those plants might be subject to more frequent types of testing and air monitoring. 

U.S. Steel Settlement over the 2018 Christmas Eve fire

U.S. Steel reaches landmark deal with county, environmental groups over 2018 fire

Kara Holsopple: U.S. Steel just recently settled a federal lawsuit over the 2018 fire that knocked out its pollution controls for months at the Clairton Coke plant. This is a big deal, right? What are the consequences for U.S. steel? 

Reid Frazier: This is a very big deal. The fire was the result of multiple equipment failures – basically, a lot of the equipment in this part of the plant where they take the pollution out of the coke oven gas just rusted and was primed to fall apart. And that’s what it did, and it sparked this huge fire. 

People in the community had to deal with 100 days more of very high air pollution levels. And so the agreement U.S. Steel arrived at with the environmental groups and Allegheny County Health Department was $42 million. 

It’s the biggest type of settlement like this in state history, according to the lawyers for the plaintiffs. And most of that $42 million comes in the form of upgrades to the plant – work that the company has already done or will do to, for instance, make more redundancy in its pollution control system so that if there’s another fire in the pollution controls, they’ll have a backup system to use. 

The settlement is big for other reasons. One of the batteries at the plant will be closed down as a result of the settlement. It had recently been put on hot idle, not being used to create more product for U.S. Steel. Also, U.S. Steel agreed to have a lower sulfur content for its coke oven gas. 

This is important because when you make coke, you’re basically heating coal up to very hot temperatures. With the gas that it creates, U.S. Steel captures it and uses it to run furnaces and other equipment at its other plants throughout the Pittsburgh area. But this gas has a lot of sulfur in it, which is very bad for air quality. And so, it has to take the sulfur out to a certain level before it can be burned and used in some of its facilities. 

U.S. Steel is basically agreeing to lower the sulfur content of that coke oven gas so that– presumably – there will be less air pollution from its facilities in Pittsburgh in the future.