Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

Chis Potter contributed to this report.

Environmentalists took a victory lap Monday for a courtroom settlement with U.S. Steel that activists are hailing as a “historic” effort to reduce emissions at the Clairton Coke Works.

The settlement, first announced late Friday, entails nearly $20 million in pollution-control upgrades at the facility, which makes fuel used in the steelmaking process. The company will also commit $5 million to affected communities — a sum environmentalists hailed as “by far the largest” in a lawsuit initiated by Pennsylvania citizens under the federal Clean Air Act.

“This historic announcement should send a message to all illegal polluters who put the health and environment of Pittsburgh at risk,” said David Masur, the executive director of PennEnvironment, during a Monday morning press conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse. “We will not sit by while illegal air pollution [rains] down on nearby communities.”

Masur’s group joined with fellow environmental advocacy organization Clean Air Council to file the federal suit in 2019.

The case arose from a long series of air pollution violations, most notably those that followed a fire at the company’s Clairton Coke Works facility on Christmas Eve, 2018. Emissions from the plant violated permissible levels of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide for more than three months after the fire. The suit also incorporated violations that followed from subsequent breakdowns at the plant in 2019 and 2022.

“We regret that these accidental incidents occurred and believe this Consent Decree greatly benefits Mon Valley communities,” said a statement from the company Friday.

That language rankled some environmentalists days later, as did the fact that U.S. Steel announced it at 4 p.m. Friday — a classic means of muffling bad news just before the weekend.

Rather than cases of bad luck, said attorney Matthew Donahue of the National Environmental Law Center, Clairton’s failures “were the completely predictable result of decades of decay, neglect, and mismanagement.”

“The December 2018 fire never should have occurred in the first place,” agreed Jay Walker, a community organizer for Clean Air Council. “Its occurrence is directly related to U.S. Steel’s intentional strategy of not maintaining its Clairton Coke Works facility.”

But environmentalists said accepting the settlement would avoid protracted litigation and allow communities to recoup more benefits.

Details of the settlement

Under the terms of the deal, U.S. Steel will invest $19.5 million to upgrade pollution control equipment at the Clairton facility, an investment that adds to $17.5 million in improvements already made after the 2018 fire. It will also permanently shut down one of its oven batteries, which had been on a “hot idle” since 2019 due to market conditions, and accept stricter emission standards related to the gas from coke ovens.

U.S. Steel will pay $500,000 to the county’s Clean Air Fund. The remaining $4.5 million will be divided evenly between the Jefferson Regional Foundation, which administers grants in the area, and the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development, to be spent on public health programs and air quality improvement projects in Mon Valley communities. U.S. Steel will also cover up to $3 million in legal costs incurred by PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council.

U.S. Steel’s Response

The company’s statement quotes Kurt Barshick, a vice president for its Mon Valley operations, asserting that employees “strive every day to make essential steel in a way that complies with all environmental regulations. When we miss that mark, we will make changes so we can do better.”

“We’re glad that a significant amount of funds from this agreement will make their way back into the communities where we live and work,” he added.

The proposed settlement makes clear that the company admits no liability – a standard disclaimer – but the terms of the agreement would bind any purchaser of the company. U.S. Steel is currently negotiating a proposed sale to Japan-based Nippon Steel Corporation.

County Executive Sara Innamorato hailed the agreement as “a win for the people of Allegheny County.”

The settlement will not be finalized for at least 45 days, a period which allows for federal regulators to review its terms. And activists stressed that the job wasn’t done: Walker said there have been high levels of hydrogen sulfide, which the coke works produces, in the past several days.

But North Braddock resident and activist Edith Abeyta said she expected to breathe a little easier in the days to come. “I can look forward to the day when I do not have to check an air monitor to open my windows,” she said, “or fear that dangerous invisible gasses … are seeping into my home and poisoning me and my neighbors.”