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Environmental advocacy groups to sue U.S. Steel over pollution

Jamie Martines
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Melanie Meade, 44, of Clairton, speaks at a press conference announcing legal action for alleged violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Feb. 13, 2019.

Environmental advocacy groups are planning to sue U.S. Steel over pollution from facilities in the Mon Valley.

PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, which both have offices in Pittsburgh, made the announcement Wednesday alongside Clairton residents at the Allegheny County Courthouse.

“We cannot expect families to sustain this kind of health burden and trauma, and we cannot expect kids to learn, grow and flourish when they are confined to their homes, unable to breath,” said Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania director for PennEnvironment. “There is no doubt the impacts of this fire are serious and ongoing, and this incident is also shining a light on pollution and health impacts that were evident at this facility for years before the fire occurred.”

The groups intend to sue over alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act that they say have occurred since a Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works damaged equipment, hindering the facility’s ability to clean coke oven gas and control pollution.

The Clean Air Act was last updated by Congress in 1990 and is intended to combat air pollution problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.Under the law, private individuals and organizations must first give alleged violators 60 days’ notice before filing a lawsuit in federal court.

According the notice sent to U.S. Steel Corporation and U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works management Wednesday, the groups will sue if U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works facilities — which include Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Steel Mill and Edgar Thomson Plant — do not resolve alleged Clean Air Act permit violations that would require the facilities to filter coke oven gas through pollution controls.

“We’re not taking any options off the table in terms of how best to resolve the suit, and we’re currently consulting with experts about how U.S. Steel can come into compliance with their permit requirements,” said Maggie Nivinson, staff attorney with the National Environmental Law Center, which is assisting PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council.

U.S. Steel has received the notification letter and is reviewing it, according to a statement from the company provided by U.S. Steel spokesperson Meghan Cox.

“U. S. Steel is committed to continue working in full cooperation with relevant stakeholders, state and local government officials and the Allegheny County Health Department to achieve our common goal of protecting our shared environment and the jobs of thousands of skilled Mon Valley Works employees that manufacture world-class steel products and have been the pride of the Pittsburgh region for generations,” the statement said.

Repairs to equipment damaged in the fire at the Clairton Coke Works facility are ongoing. It is expected to be operating at 70 percent capacity by May 15, according to statements from U.S. Steel.

Calls for stricter air quality oversight from Mon Valley residents and advocacy groups intensified in the weeks following the fire.

“It is as if no one hears us, and no one cares about our health and our well-being, and we’ve been looked over, and that should stop,” said Clairton resident Melanie Meade, who said she blames pollution from the Clairton Coke Works for the poor quality of life and health issues Clairton residents have experienced. “And this lawsuit allows them to know that we have support, and we are willing to fight for our health.”

The Allegheny County Health Department warned residents Jan. 8, two and a half weeks after the fire, that as a result there could be higher than normal sulfur dioxide, or SO2, emissions from the facility.

SO2 is a colorless gas that could affect breathing and may aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, according to the health department announcements. Young children and the elderly, including those with asthma, bronchitis or emphysema, were advised to limit outdoor activities.

Higher than permitted levels of SO2 were last detected in the Mon Valley on Feb. 4 at the North Braddock air quality monitor, according to health department data.

The detection marks the seventh time health department air quality monitors detected SO2 levels that exceeded federal standards for emissions since Dec. 24.

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