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Environment & Energy

In federal court, plaintiffs say US Steel fire, pollution control outage was a ‘complete failure’

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Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

Attorneys for plaintiffs in a federal air pollution case against US Steel said the three-month loss of pollution controls at the company’s Clairton Coke Works after a 2018 fire was a ‘complete failure’ by the company to follow clean air laws, and argued the company should be charged with over 12,000 violations.

“It is so incredibly egregious and severe,” said Josh Kratka, an attorney for PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, in a virtual hearing before Judge W. Scott Hardy of U.S. District Court judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh. “It could not have led to this many permit violations had it not been a complete failure to implement mandatory clean air act limitations from three of the largest polluting sources in Allegheny County.”

The fire started when a corroded sprinkler pipe fell onto an air compressor in a pollution control room, and led to months of bad air in Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley. A pair of environmental groups and the Allegheny County Health Department filed the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are asking Hardy to find the company guilty of committing over 12,000 violations of the Clean Air Act, and to order US Steel to implement the necessary upgrades so the plant will never again go without air pollution controls.

Until pollution controls were restored, on April 5, 2019, the plant flared untreated coke oven gas, resulting in increased emissions of sulfur dioxide, a lung irritant, by 4,500 percent.

Studies conducted since showed that the fire and resulting air pollution worsened breathing for asthma patients and increased the number of emergency room visits for asthma.

After nearly two years of briefs, the two sides made arguments in the case in a virtual courtroom Wednesday.

Kratka said the impact of the fire was made worse because the plant did not shut down. US Steel claimed that it could not safely “hot idle” the plant, and instead lowered its output, flared excess coke oven gas, and used more natural gas to power its operations during the outage.

“There is no backup system” at Clairton, Kratka said. “Not only is there no backup system, but US steel cannot turn off the coke ovens, there’s essentially no ‘off’ switch at the Clairton plant. US Steel’s policy is to keep coke ovens running and keep generating coke oven gas even when pollution controls are down.”

US Steel’s attorneys argued that the plaintiffs inflated the number of violations the company should be subject to, and questioned whether the damages the plaintiffs claimed could be traced to its plants.

The plaintiffs, six residents represented by the two environmental groups, alleged they smelled rotten egg odors, experienced burning eyes and runny noses, migraine headaches, trouble breathing, and chest pains, and saw “greasy soot” deposited on their properties. US Steel’s attorneys argued the plaintiffs could not prove US Steel’s pollution control outage caused them harm.

“We have claimed health effects, claimed smells,” said Mark Dausch, US Steel’s attorney. But these were subjective claims, he said, and should be compared with evidence US Steel compiled showing the number of air quality exceedances during that time period were consistent with other times in previous years.

“There is, at a minimum, a disputed issue of fact as to whether any alleged violation could have caused these injuries that the…plaintiffs are now claiming,” Dausch said.

The company’s attorneys also argued that the court should reject the plaintiffs’ request for a court-appointed review of US Steel’s facilities and a third-party auditor to ensure the plant complies with its federal air quality permits in the future.

But the plaintiffs’ attorney Kratka responded that no other local pollution source could have been the cause of the complaints. He cited county health department data that US Steel’s three plants in Allegheny County’s Mon Valley–Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Works, and Edgar Thomson Works–emitted nearly 3,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, or SO2, a year. The next highest source in the area contributes about 1 percent of that amount.

Kratka said years of inadequate maintenance at the plant led to the fire. He pointed to the company’s own report that showed the pipes that fell from the ceiling of an operating room, starting the fire, had not been inspected in years.

“They fell off the ceiling because they were so corroded that a key fitting that held the pipes onto the ceiling–a quarter-inch thick steel–literally had corroded away to nothing,” he said.

US Steel’s attorneys argued that it has since spent millions of dollars upgrading the pollution control units that were damaged in the fire, and that it has improved its maintenance practices. They argued any additional punishment from a federal court was unnecessary.

The judge is expected to make a determination on the number of alleged violations that US Steel committed during the pollution control outage. After that, the case could move to a penalty phase.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.

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