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Advocates say stricter air permit for Clairton Coke Works could help ensure air quality

Smoke rises from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works.
Reid Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania

Clairton residents and environmental advocates are asking the Allegheny County Health Department to place stricter pollution limits on the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works when the agency issues the facility’s next operating permit.

At a public hearing on Tuesday night, critics of the facility said the coke works — which produces fuel used in the steelmaking process — has long been a source of pollution. The plant has been a major source of particulate-matter pollution, and advocates said it routinely contributes tohigh levels of hydrogen sulfide and other pollutants.

Art Thomas, a Clairton resident said the poor air quality has negatively affected his wife’s health.

“They either need to clean it up or shut it down. It’s ridiculous to have to live like this,” he said.

Title V of the federal Clean Air Act requires major sources of air pollution to acquire and remain in compliance with a permit. The county health department issued U.S. Steel’s Clairton plant a Title V permit in 2012. That permit expired in 2017, about a year after U.S. Steel filed to renew it. Residents say a renewed permit should address pollution concerns.

“I want to know why there can’t be more requirements to reduce [pollution] emissions. When is the time to reduce it?” asked Cheryl Kirk, a Clairton resident. “I’m already third generation. Do my grandchildren have to continue fighting the same battle?”

Myron Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania director for the environmental group Clean Water Action, said he wants the health department to include measurable goals in the next permit.

While U.S. Steel previously announced plans to close three of the plant’s oldest coke oven batteries, Arnowitt said the new permit should establish a date for their closure. He also recommended that the health department be more proactive about sharing air-pollution data, and said that when pollution-control equipment is damaged, the facility should be idled and mitigation plans should be followed.

“This will be an important step to making sure that we have a cleaner plant here. And it’s important for ACHD to have known when this is going to happen and that it’s enforceable,” he said.

But U.S. Steel claims adding new emission limits goes beyond what is allowed by the Clean Air Act.

“ACHD’s creation of approximately 320 new emission limits that were not previously included in the existing Title V Operating Permit, nor any underlying installation permits or regulations, is inconsistent with the Clean Air Act,” the company said in a statement. “While we remain committed to working with ACHD on the issuance of a technically and legally sound Title V permit, U. S. Steel is requesting that the unjustified and baseless emission limits and requirements be removed.”

The hearing comes after aseries of poor air quality days in the area. On Tuesday morning, air quality in the Liberty-Clairton area reached “unhealthy” levels.

According to the health department, the Liberty monitor, which collects air quality data for the area,did not exceed federal air quality standards, which are determined over the course of 24 hours.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at