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Advocacy Groups Ask For More Public Input In Health Dept., U.S. Steel Agreement

Gene J. Puskar
The Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa.

Some Pennsylvania environmental groups are dissatisfied with an agreement that the Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Steel finalized earlier this week. The settlement addresses emissions violations at the manufacturing giant's Clairton Coke Works.

Advocacy group the Breathe Project released a letter Wednesday asking for a 30-day public review regarding details of the agreement that were previously unseen by the public. Particularly, details of a trust fund for surrounding communities deserve more public input, according to Breathe Project executive director Matt Mehalik.

The finalized agreement states that for future emissions violations at the Clairton Coke Works, 90 percent of the fines' total will go to a Community Benefit Trust for five years. A Community Advisory Panel will also be formed, to include one citizen and one government official from neighboring Liberty, Lincoln, Port Vue, Glassport and Clairton, and a representative from U.S. Steel.

Mehalik said the Breathe Project believes that could be problematic because communities closer to the Clairton Coke Works, like Clairton, will have the same amount of power as communities that are further away. He said details on who will be involved are also lacking.

"In none of these [groups] does it require anyone who has knowledge of public health or air quality issues," Mehalik said. "That's a critical piece that's missing, because this fund is being set up because of violations of air pollution to begin with."

Clean Air Council also supports a 30-day public review. In a statement, its executive director and chief counsel Joseph Otis Minott said the agreement is unsatisfactory.

"It lacks requirements for serious equipment upgrades to reduce pollution, self-imposes limits on how strongly ACHD can regulate coke oven emissions, and doesn't require that community trust money be used to clean the air," Minott said.

The settlement requires U.S. Steel to pay $2.7 million in fines, as well as make $200 million worth of improvements to the facility.

Clean Water Action's Pennsylvania director Myron Arnowitt said his group isn't calling for a 30-day review specifically, but he said there needs to be more transparency.

"So we think the public needs more of a role in this process,” Arnowitt said. "Having an additional comment period would certainly be one way the health department and U.S. Steel could do that."

However, the Allegheny County Health Department said it would not provide a public comment period.

"We appreciate the environmental groups weighing in, but will not be providing a public comment period for the trust agreement," said Ron Sugar, health department interim director. "This process has been more transparent than any such settlement agreement in the past, but our focus has been on moving forward with this so that the benefits can get to those impacted communities."
U.S. Steel did not respond to a request for comment.
*This story was updated at 8:10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 13 to include comment from the Allegheny County Health Department.