Prove your humanity

This story has been updated.

The Allegheny County Health Department has issued an emergency order for U.S. Steel to comply with air pollution regulations at its Clairton plant or stop making coke there, after a fire at the plant early Monday knocked out its air pollution controls for the second time in six months.

U.S. Steel said late Monday it had restored the pollution controls at the plant, where “normal operations have resumed.”

The county issued the order late Monday. It gives U.S. Steel 24 hours to come up with a plan to control its emissions of two pollutants: sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. The plant has 20 days to implement that plan. If it fails to meet the county’s timeline, the plant will have to “immediately cease all coke-making operations,” the county’s order states.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox said in an email the company is “reviewing the health department’s order.”

Monday’s fire forced the plant to shut off the same pollution controls it shut down for three months after a fire on Christmas Eve. After the December fire, U.S. Steel exceeded its pollution limits more than two dozen times, according to data released in Monday night’s order. Some of those exceedances were recorded after the pollution controls were put back into service. 

The order said the plant is exceeding the county’s limit of hydrogen sulfide, and the “sudden and demonstrable increase” in air pollution “present(s) a risk to the public health, safety and welfare necessitating immediate action by the Department.”

The order says that the two fires, and the plant’s subsequent failure to keep emissions within limits indicate that “despite its best efforts U.S. Steel cannot currently maintain coking operations in such a fashion as to avoid risking the public health.”

The company reported the fire at 4:43 a.m. Monday. It said it was “small” and was extinguished quickly. There were no injuries.

The fire disabled the same controls that were offline for more than three months following a Christmas Eve fire at the plant. Over that time period, thousands in the Pittsburgh area complained about breathing problems and odors.

The county’s order states that the company is temporarily flaring its untreated coke oven gas at the Irvin Works in West Mifflin and at the Clairton plant.

After the December fire, the company decreased production of coke, replaced coke oven gas in its production with cleaner-burning natural gas, and flared high-sulfur coke oven gases at Irvin Works and Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock. As a result, U.S. Steel’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions “skyrocketed” to more than 70,000 pounds a day — five times the amount it’s permitted for, the county reported.

The health department said sensitive groups like the elderly, the young, and those with breathing difficulties don’t have to take added precautions right now. But they should be aware there could be high levels of SO2, which can burn the nose and throat, obstruct airway passages, and make it hard to breathe. 

Updates on the fire can be found at the company’s website.

The Clairton plant is the largest coke works in North America. To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, it bakes coal at high temperatures.

The plant is the subject of several lawsuits and enforcement actions from Allegheny County as a result of air pollution problems. Over the past year, the county has fined US Steel $2.6 million.

Over that time span, the county has twice ordered the plant to go on ‘hot idle’, where the coke ovens are kept hot but no coke is produced. But U.S. Steel says that process could be dangerous and cause permanent damage to its coke ovens, which are sensitive to heat and operational changes.

Environmental groups were quick to criticize both the company and the county health department for the plant’s pollution record.

“Yet another fire at this aging facility further underscores the dangers of allowing US Steel to continue to operate what amounts to a doomsday machine that cannot be turned off when pollution controls are knocked off-line,” said Ashleigh Deemer, the Western PA Director for PennEnvironment. “The residents of the Mon Valley deserve clean air, not more illegal pollution from U.S. Steel.”

On Twitter, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald said: “I’m very disappointed that this is happening again. People in this community need assurance that the pollution control equipment is reliable and usable.”

Fitzgerald went on to say that the plant should have a “back-up system” for its pollution controls.

“I implore the company to use all due speed to get this fixed as soon as possible and to take immediate steps to put in a back-up system for their operations.”