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Pennsylvania's Air Was A Little Fresher In 2018, State Data Shows

The Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa.

A new state report indicates that Pennsylvanians are breathing cleaner air. However, one big exception includes residents living near U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works facility in Allegheny County.

Air quality data from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection finds, for the most part, that rates of emissions for particulate matter and sulfur dioxide gas decreased across the state. The new report includes three years' worth of data, running from 2016 through 2018.

Karen Clay, an economist and air quality researcher at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy, said she isn’t that impressed with the improvements.

“I think these kinds of improvements, where we’re not exceeding the EPA value this year, is not a particularly high bar,” said Clay.

Despite the overall declines, there were some emission increases.

The current DEP report shows increased total emissions of sulfur dioxide at three monitors in western Pennsylvania. This includes the Liberty monitor near South Allegheny High School in McKeesport, which is downwind from the Clairton Coke Works. That monitor recorded exceedences of the EPA standard for sulfur dioxide. The monitor also documented exceedences of particulate matter, though it represented a slight decrease from 2017's figures.

U.S. Steel said in a statement that the EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards "are not directly applicable to individual facilities" but that it has cooperated with the Allegheny County Health Department to improve air quality in the area. The company pointed to the installation of new equipment to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide at Clairton Coke Works. The company also said that its annual 2018 particulate matter emissions were below EPA standards, but that it hasn't officially attained the standard because the 2018 figures represent three years' worth of data.

"Environmental stewardship and safety remain core values at U. S. Steel, and we are committed to investing in our operations and processes to continue to improve air quality in the Mon Valley," the statement said.

The Allegheny County Health Department has fined U.S. Steel several times since 2018, and has joined environmental groups in suing the company for air quality violations.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the company recently settled a 2017 class action lawsuit alleging that odors and pollution from the Clairton plant interfered with residents’ quality of life. As part of the settlement, U.S. Steel will pay $2 million to residents and commit to $6.5 million worth of upgrades at the facility.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said both sulfur dioxide and particulate matter are especially harmful to people with asthma. Particulate emissions have also been linked to irritation of the throat, lungs and eyes, lung cancer and low birth rate.

*This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, December 12, 2019 to include information about the recent settlement of a class action lawsuit against U.S. Steel.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.