U.S. Steel settlement agreement met with praise, criticism
Mon Valley residents, environmental advocates and elected officials packed the Clairton Municipal Building on Tuesday for a standing room-only public hearing hosted by the Allegheny County Health Department to gather feedback on a draft settlement agreement between the health department and U.S. Steel.
The draft settlement, announced in late June, requires U.S. Steel to pay $2.7 million in fines related to 2018 and early 2019 air pollution violations at the Clairton Coke Works. It also requires the company to upgrade equipment to reduce future emissions.
Health department officials Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health, and Jayme Graham, air quality program manager, were present to hear comments. Allegheny County Council members Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin; John Palmiere, D-Baldwin; Anita Prizio, D-O’Hara and Paul Zavarella, D-Plum also were present.
Clairton Mayor Richard Lattanzi — who also works at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works in West Mifflin — was the first of 59 people registered to speak during the hearing.
He expressed support for the draft settlement, noting that he hopes that money collected from the fines can be used to fund projects that will benefit Clairton, like a medical clinic.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Lattanzi said. “I have no animosity toward anybody who is here to fight for air quality or air pollution. That is a wonderful thing. We need cleaner air, cleaner water. But I do believe the answer is not shutting down U.S. Steel. They’re one of our greatest assets in the City of Clairton, and one of our biggest tax bases. We need U.S. Steel to keep the city going. What we need to do is come together as a group, and work together and find out ways to figure out these problems.”
Of the total fines U.S. Steel will pay as a result of the draft settlement, 90% of those funds, or about $2.5 million, will be deposited into a new “community benefit trust” intended to benefit communities impacted by air pollution, according to the settlement.
Those communities include the municipalities of Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue, but additional communities as agreed upon by both the health department and U.S. Steel could be added in the future, the settlement said.
Some residents were concerned that the draft settlement did not include details describing how the fund would be administered and how the money would be disbursed. They also had questions about the formation of a community advisory board that would provide feedback to U.S. Steel.
“There are so may questions unanswered, in terms of who’s going to be on the board, and more importantly, are you going to listen to the board? Are you going to listen to the citizens’ recommendations not only to U.S. Steel, but also Allegheny County Health Department?” asked Cheryl Hurt, a lifelong resident of Clairton. “How will we know that you have taken into consideration the viewpoints that the everyday citizen here, from Clairton, is suggesting and making recommendations on?”
The remaining 10%, or $273,250, will be deposited in the existing Clean Air Fund, which is overseen by the health department.
As of April 30, there was more than $11.9 million in the fund, according to figures provided by the health department.
U.S. Steel Clairton Plant Manager Mike Rhoads responded to concerns about the community benefit trust during the hearing, stating that the trust will be administered by an independent third party that will oversee the disbursement of funds.
“The settlement agreement is a positive step for all stakeholders and represents the benefit that can be achieved by the regulatory agency, communities and industry working together,” Rhoads said.
Groups eligible to apply for money from the community benefit trust will include government entities, charitable organizations, schools and hospitals, according to a statement provided by U.S. Steel Spokesperson Meghan Cox.
Several residents and Clairton Plant employees spoke out in support of the draft settlement.
“I can remember when I was a kid, how bad the air was. And, as a baby boomer, we were always outside, morning, noon and night,” said Bob Dobransky, a lifelong resident of Clairton. He has worked at the Clairton Plant for 43 years. “But I’ve seen tremendous improvement over the years with the air quality in Clairton because U.S. Steel has made huge improvements to the plant over time.”
Scott Cameron, a Clairton Plant employee who lived in Clairton for 43 years before moving to Port Vue three years ago, also supported the settlement draft. His job at the Clairton Plant has helped him send two children to college, he said.
“I support this U.S. Steel agreement with the health department because it will benefit the community and it will protect the place where I work,” he said.
Also included in the settlement are requirements for annual, third-party audits of the facility, as well as an expansion of the CITE — Continuous Improvement to Environment — program, to further train employees and report on environmental improvements.
Pittsburgh-area environmental groups commended the Allegheny County Health Department’s efforts to hold U.S. Steel accountable for pollution violations, but also criticized aspects of the settlement agreement.
In a letter signed by 13 organizations and submitted to the health department, the environmental groups argued that the penalties imposed by the health department for emissions violations were too low and do not provide enough of a deterrent, the letter said.
“It is simply less expensive for U.S. Steel to keep paying fines instead of upgrading equipment in order to operate lawfully,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project and co-signer of the letter, said in a statement. “We believe that this agreement should require U.S. Steel to shut down and repair old coking batteries that cannot operate lawfully, because penalty fines do not appear to be a sufficient deterrent to stopping emissions violations.”
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, according to a statement from U.S. Steel.
That’s on top of U.S. Steel’s announcement in May that it would invest $1 billion to upgrade Mon Valley Works operations, including facilities at the Clairton Coke Works and nearby Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock.
But those upgrades do not do enough to address leaky batteries that contribute to emissions violations, the letter said.
“This is a step in the right direction, but what’s missing entirely is investment in new, cleaner technologies,” Kelsey Krepps, Western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and letter co-signer, said in a statement. “Minor upgrades to antiquated coke batteries from the 1950s won’t fix the problem. Until U.S. Steel retires batteries 1, 2 and 3, the region’s health will continue to suffer.”
The 30-day public comment period on the draft settlement agreement ends July 31. Written comments will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.
About 20 written comments were received by Tuesday evening, said Jayme Graham, air quality program manager for the health department.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .