Clairton officials ask Allegheny County for help in fighting air pollution
Clairton city officials showed up at an Allegheny County Council meeting Tuesday evening to ask council members to help them improve public health in their city.
“We need your help: There are a lot of people in Clairton who have respiratory illnesses, and there’s some people who have cancer, like myself right now,” Clairton Mayor Richard Lattanzi told council members, speaking during the public comment period at the end of the meeting Tuesday. “And I lost a sister three years ago with bladder cancer. It seems to be a large, alarming amount in the Mon Valley and the City of Clairton. I’m not going to blame anybody, point fingers, because we don’t have that smoking gun.”
Their visit follows months of heightened concerns over air pollution following a Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works. The fire damaged pollution control systems and repairs took months. During that period, there were several instances of high levels of sulfur dioxide, or SO2 emissions, that exceeded federal standards.
A second fire Monday shut down air pollution controls for less than a day. During that time, no SO2 exceedances were recorded by Allegheny County Health Department monitors, according to statements from the health department.
The fire was caused by an electric arc flash on a breaker panel, U.S. Steel said in a statement Wednesday.
“Repairs continue and we are evaluating all options to ensure our Clairton Plant continues to operate in a safe and environmentally sound manner,” the statement said.
Pollution controls are now operating at 100%, but repairs to the damaged breaker panel could take two weeks, U.S. Steel said.
Lattanzi said he is hopeful that new investments in the Clairton Plant and other Mon Valley Works facilities by U.S. Steel will help to decrease pollution. But he wants U.S. Steel to help Clairton address decades of pollution that he said has impacted the health of his community.
“I can’t honestly say that I got cancer because of U.S. Steel,” said Lattanzi, who worked for U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works facility. “You have to have a study, or a smoking gun. And I don’t know how you could prove it, because my whole life I’ve done plumbing and other things. But I’m saying as far as air quality in Clairton and the Mon Valley, statistics show that there’s more of a rate of cancer, and respiratory illnesses. Simply we’re saying we’re the host community, and from the plant that puts out the most pollution, give us something to say that they’re giving back to the community.”
Lattanzi, along with Clairton City Council members Denise Johnson-Clemmons, Richard Ford and City Manager Howard Bednar, asked county council to look at helping the city to access money through the Clean Air Fund, a program operated by the Allegheny County Health Department.
The fund holds fines paid by area polluters when emissions violations occur.
Those funds are then disbursed to advocacy groups, community organizations and researchers to support projects related to improving air quality in Allegheny County, including public education projects, studies, surveys, air monitoring projects or purchasing equipment, materials, services and facilities to support the air quality program, according to the fund’s website.
From March 2004 to April 30, 2019, U.S. Steel contributed $7,270,475 to the Clean Air Fund, according to figures provided by the health department.
There was $11,929,322.74 in the fund as of April 30.
Clairton has applied for Clean Air Fund grants the past, Lattanzi said. But the projects they want to tackle, like building a medical center, grocery store, recreation center or demolishing vacant buildings are not eligible for those funds because they are not directly related to air quality.
“If we had a medical facility in Clairton that somebody could actually walk to and say, ‘I’m having trouble breathing today,’ whether they got a puffer, or they just get checked out, that would go a long way,” Lattanzi said.
The 2.8-square-mile city is home to about 6,600 residents, but has not had a grocery store for over a decade. The closest medical facility is Jefferson Hospital, about 5 miles from Downtown Clairton but not easily accessible on foot.
About 20% of residents are over 62 years old, and about 18% are under 18.
Allegheny County Councilman John Palmiere of District 6, which includes Clairton, said he would explore how council might be able to support Clairton.
“That fund has very specific directions as to what you can do with that money,” Palmiere said, adding that changes to accessing that money might require the council to pass legislation.
The health department has not issued any fines or administrative orders related to the December fire; instead, those penalties will be handled through a federal lawsuit initiated by Pennsylvania environmental groups, Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment. The health department announced its intention to join that lawsuit in May and received notification from the courts Tuesday that it may move forward, according to a statement from the health department.
“This joint action ensures the strongest case possible is brought against U.S. Steel, increases the resources available to the department and allows for the best possible outcome for public health and impacted residents,” the statement said. “Allegheny County Health Department will not have any further comment as this is an ongoing legal action.”
The lawsuit alleges that U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works facilities — which include Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Works and Edgar Thomson Plant — violated federal Clean Air Act permits for coke oven gas pollution following the Dec. 24 fire.
Also speaking during the council meeting Tuesday, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald praised U.S. Steel’s May announcement to invest $1 billion in Mon Valley Works facilities, including Clairton Coke Works, that the company claims will improve pollution controls.
He also shared concerns about the fires that occurred in December and earlier this week.
“I’m really concerned that we have a redundant system, a backup system, that can immediately come online,” he said. “That if there is a shutdown, whether it’s the electrical system, that they’re able to get a backup generator or whatever it might be.”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .