State lawmakers meet to discuss air quality concerns following Clairton Coke Works fire |

State lawmakers meet to discuss air quality concerns following Clairton Coke Works fire

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

U.S. Steel representatives told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday that operations will not be business as usual following a fire at Clairton Coke Works that heightened concerns over the region’s air quality.

“I’ll take responsibility,” Chris Masciantonio, U.S. Steel director of government affairs and public policy said. “I should be notifying each of you, and we’ll set up a system in the future to do that.”

The standing-room-only hearing lasted nearly four hours and included residents, environmental advocacy groups and U.S. Steel employees in the audience.

Masciantonio, along with several other representatives from U.S. Steel, Allegheny County Health Department officials, union representatives and environmental advocates appeared at Clairton City Hall to discuss health risks to the public following a Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works facility. The fire caused significant damage that has hindered the facility’s ability to clean coke oven gas, which has resulted in higher than normal emissions of sulfur dioxide, or SO2.

Residents and advocacy groups have questioned whether U.S. Steel, the health department and local officials have done enough to inform the public about potential public health risks and how to improve that communication moving forward.

“The anger and frustration you are hearing from your constituents — and reading about in the newspaper and on social media — is not just about the fire, the poor air quality it created and the initial lack of information provided to the public,” Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution told lawmakers. “This anger, anxiety and frustration are the results of residents enduring decades of air pollution while seeing enforcement of law that has, to date, proven ineffective.”

Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, said the hearing was an opportunity to get all stakeholders together to discuss these problems.

“We’re competing in a world economy,” said Brewster. “If we can’t work with U.S. Steel, where do we go from here?”

Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, who represents residents in Clairton, said he’d be working with Brewster, along with Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, to discuss legislation that could address these issues.

“I feel encouraged by all the work that the health department’s been doing, holding U.S. Steel accountable,” Davis said.

He’d like to see more cooperation from U.S. Steel.

“I think they have some significant things they need to do in terms of upgrading the plant and keeping the community informed,” Davis said.

Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker acknowledged the need to improve communication with the public.

Hacker also shared a list of policy recommendations that included establishing stronger regulations to allow for immediate shut-downs of any facility if clean air standards are exceeded, along with mandating that coke plants and other facilities reduce production on days when there is poor air quality.

The recommendations also included requiring companies to notify communities when accidents occur that have the potential to impact public health.No such requirement currently exists, Hacker said.

Environmental advocates and residents have called for U.S. Steel to put the facility in a “hot idle” state — stopping coke production but keeping the equipment hot and running to minimize damage — in order to stop SO2 emissions while equipment damaged in the fire is repaired.

Mike Rhoads, plant manager at Clairton Coke Works, said that this is not a viable option. Putting the equipment in hot idle takes a long time to do safely and could result in equipment damage that ends up impacting the environmental performance of the facility, he said.

Don Furko, president of United Steelworkers Local 1557 representing about 1,200 workers at Clairton Coke Works, also said that could be a “short-time solution with long-term consequences.”

“Simply put, if U.S. Steel ends up idling batteries, our members will lose their jobs,” Furko said. “This will begin a chain of events that will have a devastating impact on them, their families and our communities across the Mon Valley.”

About 450 of the 1,200 workers he represents at Clairton Coke Works live in Allegheny County, while about 55 live in Clairton and Jefferson Hills, Furko said.

Furko said that he’s not aware of any workers who have experienced health issues since the Dec. 24 fire. The union’s safety committee has been working to make sure workers on the job are changing respirator cartridges regularly, he added.

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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