Mon Valley residents, environmental groups call for stricter pollution controls
Allegheny County environmental activists and Mon Valley residents are calling on the Allegheny County Health Department to institute stricter hydrogen sulfide pollution and coke oven gas controls, particularly related to emissions from facilities like U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works in Clairton.
Hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, is a colorless gas that smells like rotten eggs and can get trapped close to the ground. Hydrogen sulfide emissions are related to industrial processes like coke making.
“Watery eyes, runny nose, headaches, nausea, sleep interruption — basically, sort of general flu-like symptoms, and there is no remedy,” Edith Abeyta, a North Braddock resident said as she described the effects of air pollution near her home. “Going inside your house and closing your windows is not a remedy for this.”
Abeyta was one of about a dozen Mon Valley and Pittsburgh residents who participated in a press conference Wednesday organized by the Group Against Smog and Pollution, or GASP, a Pittsburgh-based environmental advocacy group, outside the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh.
The group delivered a petition purported to include about 650 signatures from Allegheny County residents calling for stricter hydrogen sulfide and coke oven gas controls to the Allegheny County Board of Health on Wednesday afternoon.
High levels of hydrogen sulfide occur more frequently in Allegheny County than elsewhere in the state, according to Rachel Filippini, executive director of GASP.
“By reducing (hydrogen sulfide) emissions, we have the co-benefit of reducing sulfur dioxide, benzene and fine particulates, pollutants known to cause cancer, asthma, heart attacks and strokes,” Filippini said.
Calls for focus on hydrogen sulfide come nearly a year after a Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works touched off months of heightened concern about the pollutant sulfur dioxide, or SO2.
Sulfur dioxide is a colorless gas that smells like a match that has just been struck. It could affect breathing and may aggravate cardiovascular conditions, particularly in young children and the elderly.
The fire temporarily knocked out pollution controls at the plant, leading to several instances of high levels of sulfur dioxide as repairs were made.
A second fire in June caused the pollution controls to be briefly taken offline a second time. But county air quality monitors did not record sulfur dioxide emissions that exceeded federal limits during that time.
Enforcement action related to the fires will be handled through a federal lawsuit brought against U.S. Steel by the Allegheny County Health Department and the National Environmental Law Center.
A federal judge has been assigned to mediate the case, which is expected to move forward in December.
A separate settlement agreement between U.S. Steel and the health department was announced in late June to address $2.7 million in fines related to 2018 and early 2019 air pollution violations at the Clairton Coke Works.
In addition to paying those fines, the settlement requires U.S. Steel to upgrade coke oven batteries to reduce emissions. Those upgrades are expected to cost the company about $200 million.
“There are specific and numerous equipment improvements to be made at the Clairton Coke Works, which are outlined in the agreement,” Jim Kelly, Allegheny County deputy director of Environmental Health, said in a statement in response to Wednesday’s calls for stricter emissions standards. “These include emission control system upgrades and routine independent environmental air compliance audits. The overall compliance plan included in this agreement is expected to have a significant impact on fugitive emissions, which are typically the source of (hydrogen sulfide) emissions. Some of these processes are already being implemented at the plant.”
In a separate statement, U.S. Steel responded to residents’ calls for stricter hydrogen sulfide controls, touting repairs it will make as a result of the settlement agreement as well as an additional $1 billion worth of investments it says will improve environmental performance.
“Allegheny County is the home and birthplace of our company, as well as where many of our employees live and work,” the statement read. “Environmental stewardship remains a top priority at U. S. Steel, and we have pledged significant investments in our Mon Valley Works facilities as part of our efforts to minimize environmental impact and serve as a good neighbor and corporate citizen.”
But some Clairton residents said that they aren’t satisfied with any of the promises the health department and U.S. Steel have made over the past year.
“I feel like there has been very little change, and very little initiative or support to engage the community,” said Melanie Meade, a Clairton resident who has been advocating for residents since the December fire.
Meade would like to see the health department reassure residents that “they will stand by us, and not industry.”
Art Thomas, a 70-year resident of Clairton and former U.S. Steel employee, called for more transparency. He wants to know why residents don’t get more information about what’s happening at the Clairton Coke Works and how it could impact their health.
“I remember when the smoke coming out of Clairton Mill was black, and your clothes out on the line would have black spots all over from the soot and stuff from Clairton Mill,” Thomas said. “Now, the smoke is white, and nobody seems to pay as much attention to it, but it’s still killing people.”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .