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New EPA rules could force emissions limits, monitoring at Clairton Coke Works

Big clouds of smoke rise from a large industrial facility as houses are seen in the foreground.
Reid R. Frazier
The Allegheny Front
U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works.

The EPA is finalizing rules on the amount of pollution that can come out of coke ovens, including U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works near Pittsburgh.

The regulations will also affect Cleveland-Cliffs’ Monessen, Pa., coke plant in Westmoreland County, in addition to facilities in Alabama, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio.

Adrienne Lee, an attorney with EarthJustice, says the rules are important because coke plants produce toxic pollutants that are dangerous to local communities.

“They are very harmful to human health in small quantities, and they don’t necessarily travel very far, but they have a big impact on communities living right near to a given facility,” said Lee.

Last year, the EPA proposed new rules for facilities that produce coke, a key component of the iron- and steel-making process. It’s made by baking coal at very high temperatures. The process releases coke oven gas, which is classified by EPA as a known human carcinogen. The gas contains a mixture of hazardous chemicals, metals, and volatile compounds.

EPA’s proposed rules set new standards for leaks and emissions of several hazardous chemicals, but they wouldn’t lower pollution from most facilities, including the Clairton and Monessen plants, Lee said.

“We think that EPA can and should go further,” he said. “The agency expects that the coke ovens are already meeting [the new limits], so they don’t need to change their operations to meet this new limit.”.

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The regulations are part of a regular review of the coke oven rules, which the agency first created in the 1990s.

The stakes of the rule are particularly high for Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke plant in North America. The plant is by far the largest source of benzene and other pollutants in Allegheny County, and has been a center of concern for public health advocates.

One study documented increased asthma episodes after a 2018 fire at the plant knocked out its pollution controls. Another found that children living near U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh-area plants, including Clairton, had “nearly triple” the national asthma rate, with the highest rates among African American children.

Amanda Malkowski, a spokesperson for U.S. Steel, called the proposed regulations “concerning” in an email.

Malkowski said that new limits on hazardous pollutants like mercury, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen cyanide from coke oven batteries would impose “unprecedented costs and potentially unintended adverse environmental impacts” at the Clairton plant, though Malkowswki did not elaborate on what those costs would be.

“The costs would be unprecedented and unknown because there are no proven control technologies for certain hazardous air pollutants,” Malkowski said. “U. S. Steel also believes that there is no way to achieve the proposed standards without installing and testing unproven controls, which adds cost without evidence they will improve air quality.”

In addition, Malkowski said new controls could cause “unintended adverse impacts” because of increased energy usage for waste that would need to be “recycled, incinerated or placed in a landfill.”

However, Lee contended that U.S. Steel and most other coke plants are already meeting the standards proposed by the EPA.

“Given that EPA’s proposed changes to emission limits will not require the Clairton plant to reduce its actual emissions, U.S. Steel’s claim that these limits are ‘unachievable’ rings false,” Lee said.

Monitoring for benzene

Malkowski said the company also objected to a proposed requirement that the plants conduct fenceline monitoring for benzene, a known human carcinogen.

Under that requirement, if levels of benzene climb above the threshold of 3 micrograms per cubic meter, the plant would have to find the root cause of the pollution and devise a plan to lower emissions.

Testing by environmental groups in the Mon Valley near the Clairton works has found levels that, over two-week periods, had exceeded that threshold.

In addition, company testing mandated by the EPA inside Clairton and other coke plants found much higher levels of benzene. The top measured benzene level inside the Clairton plant was 620 micrograms per cubic meter, which is higher than many federal safety thresholds but does not exceed OSHA’s workplace standard of 3190 micrograms per cubic meter. (OSHA noted many of its standards may be “outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health.”)

The top benzene levels measured along the Clairton plant’s fenceline were 32 micrograms per cubic meter in testing ordered by the EPA.

Facilities currently conduct periodic testing, but Lee says fenceline monitoring can give a better picture of pollution. “Emissions can vary over time, and it may not be reflective of the actual emissions that are coming out of that coke oven…(into) the community.”

Industry opposition to fenceline monitoring

In comments to the EPA, a steel industry trade group said it opposes fenceline monitoring requirements. The group says the agency doesn’t have the legal right to impose them and that they may pick up pollution from other sources.

Malkowski said the EPA’s proposed action limit was “arbitrary and not well grounded in science or law” and lower than the limit the EPA placed on oil refineries.

“Any amendments made to the existing regulations should be consistent with the Clean Air Act, based on sound science, consider potential adverse environmental impacts of controls, and consider the reasonableness of the costs to implement and operate,” Malkowski said.

The EPA said in its rule that the action level “was determined by modeling fenceline benzene concentrations” at coke-making plants. “Thus, if the reported inventories are accurate, all facilities should be able to meet the benzene fenceline concentration action level.”

Angela Hackel, a spokesperson for the EPA, said in an email that the final rule was “in the midst of interagency process and reflects the agency’s consideration of all comments received as well as extensive input from industry. EPA received comments from industry; environmental groups; elected officials, the general public and others on the proposed rule.”

A final rule could be announced this month.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.

Reid R. Frazier covers energy for The Allegheny Front. His work has taken him as far away as Texas and Louisiana to report on the petrochemical industry and as close to home as Greene County, Pennsylvania to cover the shale gas boom. His award-winning work has also aired on NPR, Marketplace and other outlets. Reid is currently contributing to StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY covering the Commonwealth's energy economy. Email: