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U.S. Steel is appealing an order from the Allegheny County Health Department to curb sulfur dioxide emissions at several of its Pittsburgh-area facilities, after a Christmas Eve fire damaged pollution controls at its Clairton Coke Works.

Since the fire, emissions of sulfur dioxide from U.S. Steel’s facilities in Clairton, Braddock, and West Mifflin have ballooned to five times the amount normally allowed under their county air pollution permits.

On Thursday, the department issued an enforcement order giving the company five days to respond with a plan to reduce emissions from the three sites, collectively called the Mon Valley Works. On Friday, the company said it is appealing the order.

“We are committed to correcting the damage caused by the fire and completing equipment repairs within the next 8-9 weeks that will allow us to restart the environmental controls that will return our plant to compliance,” said the statement. “Unfortunately, the Order included required actions and deadlines that would place the safety of our employees and local communities at risk.”

Clairton is the largest coke plant in North America; it produces coke, a key component of steelmaking, by baking coal at high temperatures.

The order mandated the facilities reduce their output of sulfur dioxide. One of the options that the county included was a ‘hot idle’ of some of the plant’s coke ovens. In a ‘hot idle,’ the ovens are kept hot but no coke is produced.

The company said it’s been undergoing changes to its operations, like extending the amount of time it leaves coal in its coking ovens, in order to reduce pollution, but said extending them further would create problems with health and safety.

“We cannot extend those times on the schedule set forth in the Order without jeopardizing the safety of workers and the community, and also negatively affecting the Clairton Plant’s environmental compliance,” the company said.

Meghan Cox, a company spokeswoman, said the company would need “ample time” to properly adjust its coking times.

“Our safety concerns stem from the fact that longer coking times (over 26 hours) create a potentially dangerous situation on the coke battery,” she said. “When times are extended, gas flow from the battery must be carefully managed to ensure an explosive atmosphere does not occur in the piping that collects coke oven gases.”

Ryan Scarpino, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, said in an e-mail:

“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on matters in litigation and so will have no further comment on the filings, or any statements made by the company.”

Scarpino did not provide details on how long the appeal would take to work its way to a resolution.

“When additional information is available regarding procedural steps, orders or decisions by the hearing officer, that detail will be provided,” he said.

Don Furko, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1557, which represents workers in the Clairton plant, said a hot idle could cause cracks inside of its coke ovens. He said this could lead to more pollution.

“Whenever you bring it back online and start using the coke ovens again…you end up with emissions going up through the flues and that ends up going through the (smoke) stack,” Furko said.

He said extending coking times was a complicated procedure that, if done incorrectly, could create hazardous conditions in the plant. He said a hot idle would lead to layoffs, and if the hot idle leads to significant damage, “those layoffs might turn into permanent job losses.”

The health department issued the order after receiving new data from U.S. Steel showing that the Mon Valley plants were emitting 70,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide a day. The plants are permitted to emit 13,000 pounds a day.

The Dec. 24 fire knocked out Clairton’s desulfurization units, which reduced the amount of sulfur dioxide its three Mon Valley plants produce.

Air monitors in the area have detected several spikes in sulfur dioxide since then, exceeding federal air quality standards. Sulfur dioxide can aggravate respiratory problems. In January, the county issued an air quality warning for the area that remains in effect.

The company says repairs to its pollution controls at Clairton could be completed by May. U.S. Steel is appealing a different order the county issued in June 2018 that could require it to put parts of the plant on hot idle.

Environmental and public health advocates, who have pushed for the plant be put on hot idle while it fixes its air pollution controls, said they were disappointed by U.S. Steel’s decision.

“If U.S. Steel can’t extend coking times and operate safely then perhaps they should go on hot idle until the desulfurization unit is completely repaired and back on-line,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, in an email.

US Steel Ordered to Clean up Sulfur Emissions Following Fire

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.