Several state elected officials from the Pittsburgh area want answers on Allegheny County’s response to pollution at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works after a Christmas Eve fire damaged air pollution controls at the plant.
Sulfur dioxide pollution near the plant exceeded federal standards several times in the two weeks after the fire. But the Allegheny County Health Department’s air quality warning was issued more than two weeks later — on Jan. 9 — after pollution levels shot up twice in one morning. Now, several local lawmakers, like State Sen. Jay Costa, want the county to answer questions about its response.
“My primary concern is that we learn about the incident and we measure and try to understand better the health impacts and then what steps we can go forward with respect to how we notify the public,” Costa said.
Costa and State Sen. Jim Brewster and State Rep. Austin Davis sent out a press release Thursday calling for “immediate action” on the coke works, calling for more transparency from the county health department and US Steel, and a public hearing on the plant’s ongoing issues.
“The bigger question is how we deal with a violator — (a plant that) has been an ongoing violator of the air pollution standards,” Costa said.
The county health department fined the plant $1 million in June, and threatened to put parts of the plant on idle, because of what it called “ever-increasing visible emissions and unexplained exceedance” of air pollution standards since 2014.
The Dec. 24 fire was caused by ‘mechanical failure,’ the company has said, and damaged equipment that removes sulfur dioxide, a lung irritant. After the fire, US Steel modified its operations to lower emissions of sulfur dioxide, and levels of the pollutant at a nearby air monitor have been minimal in the area since last week.
Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker says the county followed protocols, and informed the public after it was clear the excess pollution was coming from the plant and not from meteorological conditions. The county’s Jan. 9 air warning alerted vulnerable residents, like children with asthma and the elderly, to limit outdoor activities in 22 communities near the plant, the largest coke plant in North America.
Hacker said she welcomed the attention the plant has garnered from local officials.
“We are very pleased that there is a focus and an interest in getting the Clairton Coke Works to comply with the Clean Air Act,” she said. “And the support of the legislators, the support of the communities, in getting this particular industry to stop polluting is extremely helpful.”
A local physician said this week several Clairton elementary students reported increased asthma symptoms in the weeks after the fire.
A hearing is expected in the next few weeks.
This story was published in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WESA, Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY, to cover the commonwealth’s energy economy. Read more stories at StateImpact Pennsylvania's website.