Lt. Gov. John Fetterman visited U.S. Steel’s coke works in Clairton Friday morning, and offered a ringing endorsement of its efforts to recover from a Christmas Eve fire that has renewed local environmental concerns.
"We have an organization and union membership that is committed to making sure that their impact on the environment is minimal,” Fetterman said. “And these communities have the responsiveness, the transparency and the economic benefit that this plant and others … confer on the area."
The Clairton facility manufactures coke, a purified, hotter-burning form of coal that is used in steelmaking. Ordinarily, U.S. Steel captures waste-gas created in that process and pumps it through a pipeline to its other Mon Valley facilities, which use it in their processes. But since the fire, said plant manager Michael Rhodes, “We’ve been flaring a significant volume of the coke-oven gas” – between 60 and 65 percent.
That has been accompanied by a spike in air-quality violations, and prompted debate over the plants impact on public health within the Mon Valley.
Fetterman noted that he himself still lives in Braddock, where he served as mayor for over a decade, next door to U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson works. “There is no family in Allegheny County that lives closer with children … closer to a U.S. Steel facility than myself,” he said. But after touring the facility, he said, he was convinced the company was taking the necessary steps to protect workers and the environment.
"We're talking about a facility that needs to be rebuilt to the highest environmental standards,” he said. “And they're delivering on that commitment to rebuild. And I saw that firsthand.”
Others are less convinced: The Clairton works has long been a source of complaints about air-quality, and two environmental groups have threatened to sue over violations of emission limits since the fire.
Fetterman has long straddled the gap between the steel industry and the Mon Valley communities that still host it. He’s been a supporter of the “Bluegreen Alliance,” a United Steelworkers-backed effort to find common cause between unionized blue-collar workers and environmentalists. And as his evidence of his own environmental bona fides, he's pointed to his long-standing opposition to the Mon-Fayette Expressway, a highway that would cut through the Mon Valley.
But he’s also backed U.S. Steel’s bid to “frack” for natural gas on its Braddock site – a drilling process that is controversial among environmentalists. And in Clairton he parted ways with state Rep. Summer Lee, who represents Braddock and who has called for the plant to be put on “hot idle,” in which coke-making would be put on standby until repairs are complete.
Fetterman told reporters that the company made a good case against doing so.
“It’s a multi-month long process and it would denigrate the equipment, to create more environmental concerns,” Fetterman said. “And it risks laying off and idling not just this facility, but Edgar Thomson and Irvin Works [in nearby West Mifflin]. So it would have an enormous economic impact.”
Rhodes, the plant manager, said the company would be able to begin restarting the usual process in mid-May. In the meantime, it has slightly slowed the coke-making process.