Prove your humanity

A lawsuit over the Christmas Eve 2018 fire that crippled U.S. Steel’s pollution controls at its Clairton Coke Works and exposed thousands near Pittsburgh to high levels of air pollution has been settled, according to an attorney on the case. 

The case had been scheduled for trial next month in federal court, but the two sides have agreed to a settlement, said Josh Kratka, attorney for the National Environmental Law Institute, which is representing two environmental groups that sued the company. The Allegheny County Health Department also joined the suit as one of the plaintiffs. 

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“We’ve reached an agreement in principle but we need time to work out details in a legal format that can be submitted to the Court in the form of a consent decree,” said Kratka, in a phone call. 

Kratka declined to go into specifics about what the agreement contained. The two parties have a court-imposed deadline of May 1 to finalize the agreement. 

The plaintiffs, PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council, had asked the court to impose a $42 million fine on the company under the Clean Air Act for the fire and subsequent loss of pollution controls. 

“We are pleased to have reached a tentative settlement of this matter and cannot comment further,” said Amanda Malkowski, a U.S. Steel spokeswoman, in an email. 

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Patrick Dowd, Allegheny County Health Department acting director, said in an emailed statement that the agreement was reached “(a)fter extensive negotiations and discussion” between the parties.

“The settlement will resolve our claims regarding violations of the Clean Air Act,” Dowd said. “This does not mean that the matter is resolved, or that a trial is completely ruled out, but merely that the parties are working constructively towards a negotiated settlement.”

Decrepit conditions that led to the fire

Legal documents made public in the case gave the public an otherwise inaccessible view of the decrepit conditions at the Clairton plant that precipitated the fire.  

The documents showed how a leak that had likely been going on for “years” at the plant dripped onto a sprinkler pipe, which corroded until “no metal remained⁠” in some parts of the pipe. The pipe collapsed on December 24, 2018, severing another pipe filled with lubricating oil, starting a fire moments later⁠ that would take down Clairton’s pollution controls. 

The fire was made worse because other cracked or rusted-out pieces of equipment failed during the event, the documents showed. 

Air pollution caused more asthma, thousands of complaints

Over the next 102 days, the plant flared untreated coke oven gases, causing 11 exceedances of federal ambient air quality standards and forcing Pittsburghers to breathe air fouled with harmful sulfur and particle pollution

During the outage, the plaintiffs alleged, U.S. Steel’s emissions of sulfur dioxide went from one ton per day before the fire to 45 tons per day after the fire⁠, or a 4,500 percent increase. 

Studies conducted since showed that the fire and resulting air pollution worsened breathing for asthma patients and increased the number of emergency room visits for asthma. 

Thousands of air quality complaints rolled into the Allegheny County Health Department, many complaining of a sulfurous, rotten egg smell; one complainant said the smell was so bad they could not even let their dogs out.

In a March filing, U.S. Steel said it had spent $82 million repairing the plant since the fire, with $22 million of that expense getting paid out by insurance. The company posted record profits of $4 billion and $2.5 billion in the last two years, respectively.

Clairton is the largest coke plant in the US, producing about 4.7 million tons of coke per year. U.S. Steel’s three plants in the Pittsburgh region drew over $9 million in air quality fines from the Allegheny County Health Department last year. The plant is by far the largest source of particle pollution and hydrogen sulfide emissions in Allegheny County.

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.