Mon Valley residents, advocacy groups call for more action on air quality
A month after a Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works knocked out equipment used to clean coke oven gas, Mon Valley residents and environmental groups are calling for a “hot idle” at the facility.
“We don’t want to damage the plant, we want the damage to stop,” said Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said following a news conference at the Community Economic Development Corp. of Clairton on Wednesday.
A hot idle could allow the facility to keep its equipment running at the temperatures necessary to prevent it from breaking while cutting back on production — and, in turn, reducing the pollutants that could be released while the equipment that cleans coke oven gas is being fixed, he said.
The Breathe Project was joined by several other Pennsylvania-based environmental advocacy groups and Mon Valley residents who criticized how local and county officials have communicated with residents following the fire.
“Who is protecting the people? Who cares about the well-being of our community?” said Melanie Meade, a Clairton resident who grew up in the city. She called on officials to stop finger-pointing and instead do more to protect air quality.
The investigation into the Dec. 24 fire is ongoing, but U.S. Steel has reported that the fire started as a result of a failure in one of the compressors used for gas processing, according to an update posted to the Allegheny County Health Department Facebook page Wednesday.
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 emissions throughout the Mon Valley.
The department was informed Tuesday that U.S. Steel expects the coke oven gas cleaning unit, which was damaged in the fire, to be operating at 70 percent capacity by May 15, according to the health department update.
Allegheny County Health Department officials met with reporters Wednesday to discuss residents’ concerns.
The Allegheny County Health Department has considered a hot idle, said Dr. Karen Hacker, the department’s director, adding that the move is one of the penalties of an enforcement order issued by the Health Department against U.S. Steel in June.
But that order is not tied to the Dec. 24 fire. Rather, it is tied to the ongoing compliance issues, Hacker said.
Any penalties issued by the health department against U.S. Steel related to the Dec. 24 fire will not be issued until the incident is closed, she said.
Hacker emphasized that there have been no sulfur dioxide exceedances in the Mon Valley since Jan. 8.
Clairton Coke Works exceeded federal standards for hourly sulfur dioxide emissions six times in the 2½ weeks following the fire.
“While we are still concerned that there could be additional exceedances, it at least appears at this point that the mitigation strategies that U.S. Steel is using are dealing with the pollution potential,” Hacker said.
Additional SO2 monitors paid for by U.S. Steel will also be installed in Clairton at the Clairton Education Center and near U.S. Steel Irvin Works, where coke oven gas is flared, Hacker said.
Those monitors will supplement air quality data already collected throughout the region and updated hourly on the Health Department website.
The department will also be issuing daily updates on its Facebook page and through the Allegheny Alerts system.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, email@example.com or via Twitter .