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U.S. Steel agrees to pollution fixes in settlement with Allegheny County

| Friday, March 25, 2016, 1:57 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
U.S. Steel employees and visitors tour the C Battery during opening day ceremonies Jan. 31, 2013 for the new facility at the Clairton coke making plant.

U.S. Steel Corp. agreed to make fixes at its Clairton Coke Works to address ongoing air pollution problems as part of a settlement with Allegheny County that has already cost the company nearly $4 million in fines.

Despite a series of amended agreements between the Downtown-based company and the county health department dating back to at least 2007, the massive plant continues to violate health rules and its permits by exceeding limits on air pollution, the county said. The company has paid more than $3.9 million in fines since 2009 and agreed to pay another $25,000 within 60 days.

The latest agreement, outlined in court papers filed this week, is the result of years of negotiations between the struggling steelmaker and the health department that allow the plant to continue operating for at least five years while it makes fixes.

“We are confident that with this consent judgment, U.S. Steel will take all necessary steps to bring Clairton Coke Works into compliance with the law,” Jim Thompson, the department's deputy director for environmental health, said in a statement Friday announcing the agreement. “In the event that it is still unable to correct the problem, we have made certain that any continuing violations will be met with significant penalties and consequences.”

U.S. Steel said it was pleased with the agreement.

“We are fortunate to be able to work with (the Allegheny County Health Department) to ensure the future of not only Clairton, but the entire Mon Valley Works,” spokeswoman Sarah Cassella wrote in an email. “Environmental stewardship is a core value at U.S. Steel.”

Requirements in the agreement, some of which continue from previous orders, include:

• Inspecting oven walls and coming up with a plan to repair them

• Meeting standards that limit pollution in emissions from oven batteries within three years

• Keeping coal inside ovens for minimum time periods to reduce emissions

• Making observations of smoke plumes from certain equipment several times a day.

Failure to fulfill the requirements in various time frames outlined in the agreement will result in fines ranging from $500 per hour for some violations to $40,000 per month.

“It appears it's more of the same. We will allow the polluter to continue to pollute as long as they pay” the county, said George Jugovic, chief counsel for environmental advocacy group PennFuture.

Thompson said the agreement forces U.S. Steel to engineer solutions “that will bring its entire facility into compliance in the fastest way possible.”

PennFuture in January filed a 60-day notice in federal court threatening to sue over what it considered the county's failure to properly enforce air pollution limits and the previous agreements. The 60 days — a requirement for lawsuits under the Clean Air Act — were due to expire next week.

Jugovic said the group requested to take part in the negotiations between the county and U.S. Steel but the health department said no.

“Their response was to go back behind closed doors … close out citizens, and don't involve them in the process, even though we're the ones affected,” he said.

Thompson responded that filing a 60-day notice does not give someone “a seat at the negotiating table.

“It is to allow the agency to address the issues,” he said through a spokeswoman. “It is (the health department's) responsibility to enforce the regulations. While we consider citizen input in developing our actions, we negotiate these directly with the company.”

PennFuture will consider seeking to intervene in the court case connected to the agreement — which Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward signed on the same day it was filed — or might file a separate lawsuit, Jugovic said.

Fine particulates and other pollutants from the coke plant and other sources make the air around Clairton and nearby Liberty some of the worst in the region. The county has struggled for years to meet and maintain compliance with ever-changing federal standards that limit certain pollutants in that area.

The Clairton facility has 10 batteries of ovens where it converts metallurgical coal into coke used in steelmaking, and facilities for processing byproducts.

U.S. Steel in 2013 finished installing a new Battery C to replace older ovens, calling it the centerpiece of $500 million in upgrades at the plant. The agreement outlines other steps the company has taken to reduce pollution, including the replacement of two quench towers, the closing of three batteries of ovens, and a combined $60 million in repairs to batteries 1, 2, 3, and 15.

The company has been battered in recent years by a downturn in the steel industry and slackening demand for many of its products that have prompted thousands of layoffs and numerous plant closures. Reduced production and low prices led to a 34 percent drop in sales last year and a full-year net loss of $1.5 billion.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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