Clairton Coke Works pollution control systems back on line after Monday morning fire |

Clairton Coke Works pollution control systems back on line after Monday morning fire

Jamie Martines
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works as seen from Clairton, Pa., on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

Pollution control systems at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works were back on line Monday night after being shut down because of an electrical fire at the facility Monday morning.

In an emailed statement, U.S. Steel said it made repairs and environmental controls, including desulfurization, were operating by 8:15 p.m. The company said no exceedances of sulfur dioxide were recorded at nearby air quality monitors as of data available through 5 p.m.

The Allegheny County Health Department earlier in the day had ordered U.S. Steel to submit a written corrective plan by 4 p.m. Tuesday. U.S. Steel could have faced fines of $25,000 a day if the environmental controls were not fixed within 20 days.

The Monday fire caused the closure of the same two control rooms damaged in a Dec. 24 fire. The health department advised sensitive populations, including those with respiratory conditions, children and the elderly, to be aware of higher-than-normal levels of sulfur dioxide, or SO2.

“It’s important to understand that there is no need for individuals to take specific precautions at this time,” a statement from the health department said. “As of 12 p.m. today, there have been no elevated SO2 levels at any of the monitors in the Mon Valley.”

The fire was detected on an electrical breaker panel about 4:20 a.m., according to statements from U.S. Steel and the health department. An “electrical issue with breakers” caused the fire, officials said.

There were no injuries, the statement said.

“Yet another fire at this aging facility further underscores the dangers of allowing U.S. Steel to continue to operate what amounts to a doomsday machine that cannot be turned off when pollution controls are knocked off-line,” said Ashleigh Deemer, the Western Pennsylvania director for PennEnvironment, an environmental advocacy group.

Control Rooms 1, 2 and 5 — which house equipment and controls used to operate pollution controls, including desulfurization — were shut down after the fire, according to the health department.

Desulfurization is a process used to clean coke oven gas, a byproduct of the coke-making process, in order to remove sulfur.

Earlier in the day, U.S. Steel said, “We are following mitigation steps to include replacing coke oven gas with natural gas and flaring while we work to repair the damaged equipment.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald issued a statement expressing his disappointment with U.S. Steel and commending the county health department’s quick action in the matter.

“I implore U.S. Steel to use all due speed to get this fixed as soon as possible and to take immediate steps to put in a back-up system for their operations. The health of the people of Clairton and surrounding communities, and the U.S. Steel employees, is too important to do otherwise,” Fitzgerald said.

PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council filed a lawsuit in federal court in April over alleged Clean Air Act violations related to coke oven gas pollution since the December fire. Allegheny County Health Department joined the suit in May.

The lawsuit is seeking a court order that would require U.S. Steel to comply with air permits, an order that would require U.S. Steel to remediate harm caused to local communities as well as hefty civil penalties to punish U.S. Steel for past violations and deter future violations.

“The residents of the Mon Valley deserve clean air, not more illegal pollution from U.S. Steel,” Deemer said.

SO2 is a colorless gas and smells like a lit match. It can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and could irritate conditions like asthma.

Repairs to the No. 2 Control Room and pollution controls were completed in April and have been operating normally since.

Since the December fire, several environmental groups have filed lawsuits against U.S. Steel over pollution at Clairton Coke Works.

County health department staff have notified local and state elected officials and have contacted school nurses and pediatricians in the Mon Valley. Staff will monitor emergency room visits in the Mon Valley.

“There is clear evidence that the problems at this plant have not been resolved and this plant cannot operate under control,” said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Breathe Project advocacy organization. “What makes it worse is U.S. Steel’s plans for a $1 billion reinvestment don’t address the ongoing pollution problem that exist at the Clairton Coke Works.”

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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