Prove your humanity

U.S. Steel said Friday it is scrapping plans for a $1 billion upgrade to its Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock, near Pittsburgh. The steelmaker said it will also shutter three coke oven units at its plant in Clairton.

U.S.Steel first announced plans for what it called an “endless casting” mill at the Edgar Thomson plant in 2019. Back then, the company said the new mill would keep steelmaking in Pittsburgh with fewer emissions.

“I have never been more confident in the future than I am right now at U.S. Steel,” president and CEO David Burritt said at the time.

But in an earnings call Friday morning, Burritt said the company is now canceling the project.

“This is not a decision we took lightly,” he said. Burritt explained that part of the reason was the company’s desire to become carbon neutral by 2050.

“When facts change, we must change,” Burritt said. “Today’s Mon Valley announcements are informed by our expanded understanding of our steelmaking future and accelerated approach to reducing our carbon and capital intensity.”

At the same time, the company, Burritt said, was closing coke oven batteries 1, 2 and 3 at Clairton, the largest cokemaking plant in North America. The three units account for about 17 percent of the plant’s output.

Coke, a key component in steelmaking, is made by baking coal at high temperatures and is used to make steel at the company’s Edgar Thomson works. But the process creates emissions like fine particles and soot, and also carbon dioxide, the main culprit in global warming. Worldwide, steelmaking accounts for around 8 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Sustainable Steelmaking in Arkansas

The company said it was going to emphasize “sustainable steelmaking” at Big River Steel, a company it bought in Arkansas, which uses a different process that creates fewer emissions.

The company said it is still making steel in the Pittsburgh area for the foreseeable future for appliances and construction. “To be very clear, this is not the end of the Mon Valley Works,” Burritt said.

In a written statement, the company noted the project had waited two years for air permits from the Allegheny County Health Department. The statement said that during the delay, the company’s priorities around cutting emissions shifted.

“This delay allowed for a consequential window of time during which we expanded our understanding of steelmaking’s future in a rapidly decarbonizing world,” the statement said.

Health Department Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly said in a statement he was “disappointed” at the “suggestion by U.S. Steel that their decision was based in part on the ACHD’s permitting process.”

Kelly said the agency “worked closely with U.S. Steel for an extensive period of time on this project, starting in May 2019. Certainly, COVID-19 had an impact on how all organizations operated,” and that during the pandemic the agency “continued to work proactively to move this project along.”

Finger-Pointing Begins

The announcement prompted a barrage of finger-pointing aimed at politicians, the county government, environmental groups, and U.S. Steel.

An industry group, Pittsburgh Works Together, blamed the health department, “so-called environmental groups,” and local politicians for the cancellation of the project.

“The broad failure of local officials to rally around this massive reinvestment in the last of steelmaking in the Mon Valley reinforces the perception that the region and Pennsylvania are openly hostile to job-creators,” said Jeff Nobers, the group’s executive director, in a statement. “The (project) was intended to allow the Mon Valley Works to manufacture lighter stronger steel intended for the auto industry which in turn would have resulted in more efficient cars with lower emissions…(n)ow that won’t happen here.”

Environmental groups had mixed reactions to the announcements. On the one hand, fewer emissions from the coke plant, the largest single source of particle pollution in Allegheny County, would improve Pittsburgh’s air. On the other, the potential for job losses as a result of the cancellation would sting the region, they said.

“For too long, U.S. Steel has run roughshod over our environmental protections and churned out dangerous levels of harmful air pollution. Closing these batteries is a necessary and long-overdue step toward reducing that damage and cleaning our region’s air,” said Zachary Barber, clean air advocate for PennEnvironment, in an email.

The Breathe Project said in a statement U.S. Steel reneged on its promise of cleaner steelmaking in the Pittsburgh region. “Instead of embracing innovation, investing in the Mon Valley, and improving quality of life while securing employment, the latest announcement follows a pernicious cycle that leads to abandoning Mon Valley workers, communities, and residents,” the statement said.

On Facebook, state Rep. Austin Davis, a Democrat representing the 35th district, said U.S. Steel executives “have broken their promise to the Mon Valley and its own workers by scrapping a plan that would have made the Mon Valley Works the first project of its kind, provided cleaner air for our community and good jobs that would have helped this area prosper for decades.”

Chardae Jones, the mayor of Braddock, said she was disappointed because the project promised continued investment in the Mon Valley with fewer emissions that plague the area, which has the worst air quality in the county.

She said she’d thought “the millions of dollars they were going to put into the Mon Valley at the Braddock plant would create jobs and efficiency and would lower pollution, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. I wouldn’t want jobs to leave the community, that’s the worst fear.”

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Jones’ predecessor as mayor of Braddock and current U.S. Senate candidate, said the news was “absolutely devastating,” and blamed unnamed local elected officials for the project’s failure.

“We had the opportunity to make some of the greenest steel in the world right here in Braddock and secure the future of thousands of good-paying union jobs,” Fetterman said, in a statement. “I will never understand why I was one of the only elected officials who pushed for this major project proactively and enthusiastically, while so many others turned their back on the working men and women of the Steelworkers and Building Trades in Allegheny County.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said on Twitter: “Since @U_S_Steel made its May 2019 announcement, I’ve been extremely supportive of the project & vocal in that support. I’m disappointed that the company isn’t moving forward with an initiative that would have been good for our environment, our economy & jobs, and our residents.”

A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said the company would manage the loss of 130 coke oven jobs at the Clairton plant “without layoffs,” through retirements and reassignments. The three batteries, or units, would close by 2023.

Don Furko, president of United Steelworkers Local 1557, which represents the 1,200 workers at Clairton, said he was “absolutely disappointed” at hearing that three batteries would be closed.

“My fear is that we’ll end up with some layoffs there,” Furko said.

Furko worries what the company’s goal of getting carbon neutral by 2050 means for the long-term health of the plant, which produces 4.3 million tons per year of coke.

“That’s only 29 years away,” he said. “You’re talking about reducing carbon, the carbon footprint here? I mean, it sounds ominous. It sounds like the plant isn’t in their long-term plans.”

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.