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County officials meet with health department, discuss Clairton Coke Works fire |

County officials meet with health department, discuss Clairton Coke Works fire

Jamie Martines
Clairton Coke Works on Jan. 15, 2019.

Allegheny County Council members met with Health Department officials Wednesday to discuss the ongoing impact of a Dec. 24 fire at Clairton Coke Works that hindered the facility’s ability to clean coke oven gas and remove sulfur dioxide pollution.

The meeting with council members came a day before Health Department officials were scheduled to appear at a state legislative hearing on air quality in Clairton.

Councilman Patrick Catena, a member of the council committee on health and human services, questioned whose responsibility it is to inform the public about potential health risks. He also asked whether U.S. Steel, which owns Clairton Coke Works, is cooperating with the Health Department.

“They are required to report a breakdown — they did that,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, department director.

She said evaluating the extent of the damage and communicating it to the public took longer because U.S. Steel did not immediately provide that information to the department.

“The industry doesn’t have any obligation — there’s nothing in any regulation anywhere that says that they have to inform the public,” Hacker said. She later added that U.S. Steel has been keeping the Health Department updated on efforts to repair the damage caused by the fire.

U.S. Steel also launched a website following the fire detailing repair efforts at Clairton Coke Works.

The Health Department issued an alert on Jan. 9, 2½ weeks after the fire, advising residents — especially those with asthma, bronchitis or emphysema, as well as children and the elderly — that there could be higher than usual sulfur dioxide, or SO2, emissions throughout the Mon Valley following the fire.

Health Department air quality monitors detected sulfur dioxide levels that exceeded federal standards for hourly emissions seven times since the Dec. 24 fire.

The most recent sulfur dioxide exceedance occurred Feb. 4. The Health Department is working on enforcement action against U.S. Steel but does not have a timeline for when it will be enacted, said Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health.

The Health Department has not yet determined the cause of the Feb. 4 spike in sulfur dioxide emissions but suspects it could be related to the flaring of natural gas at the U.S. Steel Irvin Works facility in West Mifflin — an action that was part of mitigation efforts following the Clairton Coke Works fire, Kelly said.

“Is the thinking that this is the new normal?” Councilman Paul Klein asked health department officials. Klein’s county council district includes communities in the Mon Valley.

Klein and Councilwoman Sue Means said they’ve spoken with constituents who have described respiratory problems or irritation since the Dec. 24 fire.

“I’m getting complaints,” Means said. She said she heard from Port Vue residents who have experienced irritation to their throat and lungs while doing outdoor activities like walking the dog.

Moving forward, Hacker told council members that they will do more to communicate with and to educate the public, advocacy organizations and local lawmakers on these issues.

John Palmiere, chairman of the committee on health and human services, urged health department officials to explain to the public that enforcement actions against polluters does not happen over night.

“It takes time,” said Palmiere, whose district includes Clairton.

Thursday’s legislative hearing that health department officials are scheduled to appear at will be hosted by state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills and Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport.

The hearing will address community notification procedures, air quality monitoring and emergency responses, Brewster said in a statement.

The hearing is open to the public. It starts at noon Thursday and will be held at the Clairton municipal bulding, 551 Ravensburg Blvd., Clairton.

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

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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