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U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works is one of the biggest emitters of air pollution in Pennsylvania. The facility, where coal is baked at high temperatures to make coke, and the company’s other Mon Valley facilities south of Pittsburgh, have a long history in the region. And a long history of fines and consent decrees from the Allegheny County Health Department, which regulates air pollution.

In June of 2018, the county fined U.S. Steel $1 million dollars for chronic violations at the Clairton plant for visible emissions and exceedances of pollution standards. It also threatened to shut down parts of the plant if things didn’t improve. That order is being appealed by the company, and three other fines since then are also being appealed. (See all of our reporting on the Clairton Coke Works)

Residents and environmental groups are also putting legal pressure on U.S. Steel. In December the agreement for the settlement of a 2017 class action lawsuit was announced. Kristina Marusic, a reporter for Environmental Health News, is here to talk about the settlement, and other recent air pollution news from the Mon Valley.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: First, talk about why the lawsuit was filed and what the details of the agreement are when it comes to what U.S. Steel has to pay?

Kristina Marusic: There are a number of pending lawsuits against U.S. Steel, but this one that we’re talking about today is just about property values. Two Clairton residents who say that ongoing air pollution impacted their ability to enjoy their private property because the air smelled bad and was unsafe for them to breathe, filed this lawsuit in the hopes of getting compensated for that loss of ability to enjoy their property.

KH: The proposed settlement is eight and a half million dollars that U.S. Steel would pay. A lot of that is going towards improving the coke-making facility to reduce emissions. The rest goes to residents. Who is included in that settlement? 

KM: The settlement, if it goes forward, would allow around 5,600 households in certain parts of Clairton and surrounding neighborhoods, including Elizabeth and McKeesport, to split a little more than a million dollars. About 6.5 million dollars is going towards those upgrades, as you mentioned. And then another million is going to the attorneys’ fees. So eligible residents should have received a notice about the proposed settlement in the mail by now.  Depending how many households file claims, people might expect to get around two or three hundred dollars.

“If you’re included in the settlement, you would lose the right to sue U.S. Steel separately for nuisance and loss of property value caused by air pollution for a specific time period.”

KH: You reported that there were some surprising things about the settlement that residents in McKeesport, Clairton and Elizabeth should know, including that if 20 or more people opt out of the settlement, U.S. Steel could back out of the deal. What else could happen?

KM: One of the most important things for people to know is that if you live in the region that’s included in the settlement and you don’t opt out of it, you’ll be automatically included, but you won’t get any money unless you file a claim form.

If you’re included in the settlement, you would lose the right to sue U.S. Steel separately for nuisance and loss of property value caused by air pollution for a specific time period. So this proposed settlement is only relevant for pollution that occurred before December 24th, 2018. So it’s specifically leaving out that Christmas Eve fire that happened last year.

Also important to know is if 20 people are more opt out of the settlement, there is a clause in the proposed settlement that says U.S. Steel could back out of the agreement. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. If that happened, there could be opportunities for residents to try and sue U.S. Steel for a higher amount. Or it could end up with people getting lower payments that two or three hundred dollars or they might get no money at all.

KH: This class action lawsuit is separate from another, which was brought last July, which addresses pollution from a Christmas Eve fire at the Clairton plant in 2018. Over this past week of Christmas, air quality monitors near the plant recorded six days in a row of exceedances of the federal standard for fine particulate matter. Talk about the significance of these pollutants to health and how the weather contributed to the unhealthy air. 

KM: So particulate matter pollution is tiny, tiny microscopic particles that we breathe in through the air and they’re so small they can penetrate the tissue of our lungs. So as you can imagine, that could cause some pretty serious health issues. It can trigger asthma, bronchitis. It can cause heart attacks and lead to long-term heart disease and respiratory disease.

“During this inversion, the air smelled like rotten eggs, sewer backup, burning plastic and hospital waste and they reported symptoms like wheezing, coughing, choking, nausea, stinging eyes and headaches.”

At levels like we saw in the Mon Valley over Christmas this year, you start to really see a lot more acute effects. That’s things like heart attacks or flare ups of COPD or asthma, so that it requires a hospital visit for people who already have heart and respiratory disease.

KH: So the Allegheny County Health Department, which regulates air quality in the Pittsburgh region, says that they were in communication with the Clairton plant and that they were operating under their permit within the law. But there was a special circumstance, which was the weather. 

KM: Right. So there was something called a temperature inversion where it happened sometimes during the winter on unseasonably warm days like we had over Christmas this year. A cold weather mass comes in and a warm weather mass sits on top of it, above it. It creates this kind of lid that traps pollutants close to the ground.

These kinds of weather patterns are historically pretty rare, but this is also what caused the worst and most famous air pollution disaster in the United States, which was the 1948 “Donora Smog.” It killed 20 people in the Mon Valley town of Donora, which is just 13 miles south of the Clairton Coke Works. It actually led to the creation of the Clean Air Act. So our region is no stranger to this kind of weather pattern. But they are fairly rare.

KH: The Allegheny County Health Department recently came out with a new proposal for a regulation to reduce pollution during these temperature inversions. What could that look like and how long will it take for a new regulation like that to come out? 

KM: So some local environmental groups have suggested that there’s language already in local clean air laws that should allow the Allegheny County Health Department to take steps like this, but that the health department hasn’t updated those regulations since before federal standards for particulate matter existed. So the language is there, but there isn’t a threshold. There isn’t a lever right now that they can pull.

The health department statement made it sound like they’re going to be working on new regulations that would make this easier and streamline this, which local environmental organizations have said is a great first step. A lot of local environmental organizations are also hoping that the health department will come up with stricter coke oven regulations in general. They’ve pointed out that we can control emissions, but we can’t control the weather.

“There are a lot of calls directly to U.S. Steel from community members to…be a better neighbor and take the initiative to reduce emissions when it’s clear that there’s an inversion happening.”

The health department said in its statement that these regulations would likely take a while to come up with and then enact. But it would certainly make sense for them to have some flexibility in their ability to ask industries like U.S. Steel to reduce emissions if they know that an inversion like this is coming that could cause the air to be harmful to breathe if regular emissions are happening.

KH: The county said in a press release that it’s focusing on regulations for temperature inversions because they’re likely to become more frequent with climate change. And I know you’ve looked into this for a recent piece at Environmental Health News. What have you learned? 

KM: We know for sure that as climate change continues, we’ll see more extreme heatwaves in the summer around the world. That also can cause extreme air pollution events, but they tend to be ozone rather than particulate matter. Particulate matter can be impacted, too, but when it’s heat, it’s usually ozone that’s trapped close to earth.

There is still some debate in the scientific community about whether climate change means we’ll see more inversions in the winter. But I spoke with a researcher, Shiliang Wu at Michigan Technological University, who published a paper in 2016 that looked at 60 years of meteorological data and found that inversions like this have increased by almost 50 percent over the last 60 years in most of the parts of the world where people live, and that is cause for concern.

KH: What has U.S. Steel said about what happened over this past Christmas? And how was this pollution event perceived by the public? 

KM: Residents complained through the Smell Pittsburgh app, which uses crowdsourcing to map the smells and symptoms associated with air pollution, that during this inversion, the air smelled like rotten eggs, sewer backup, burning plastic and hospital waste. They reported symptoms like wheezing, coughing, choking, nausea, stinging eyes and headaches.

U.S. Steel hasn’t said much except that they were following the letter of the law and would continue to cooperate with the health department. Some environmental groups have pointed out that U.S. Steel has reduced the quantity of their emissions when the market demanded less production…and that they chose not to during this particular instance.

So there are also a lot of calls directly to U.S. Steel from community members to step up and be a better neighbor and take the initiative to reduce emissions when it’s clear that there’s an inversion happening and the community is being impacted by these emissions. 

Clean Air Group Calls for Stronger Rules for Coke Ovens in Allegheny County