Health department apologizes for ‘lack of clarity’ about U.S. Steel meeting
The Allegheny County Health Department on Friday apologized for a communication error with the public about a recent meeting with U.S. Steel officials.
The department in June fined U.S. Steel $1 million for air pollution at Clairton Coke Works, which the company appealed last month.
A hearing on U.S. Steel’s petition to stay the department’s enforcement order against it was set for Aug. 8 at the health department’s Clack Building 7 in Lawrenceville, then postponed until Thursday at 10 a.m. at the same location, department spokesman Ryan Scarpino said in emails to the Trib. The hearing was set to be open to the public.
On Tuesday, the department posted a note to its Facebook page that the hearing was canceled.
U.S. Steel withdrew it’s petition to stay health department’s enforcement order, Scarpino wrote to the Trib. The company’s appeal remains. A hearing on the appeal is scheduled for Dec. 3 in the same location, the department posted to a web page Friday afternoon.
Debra Smit, communications manager for the Hill District-based Breathe Project, told the Trib she showed up at the Clack Building at 10 a.m. Thursday to find eight department and U.S. Steel officials holding a meeting.
The hearing did not occur, but the portion of the meeting open to the public lasted nearly 40 minutes, Smit said.
Asked about the meeting, Scarpino said in an email Thursday: “Status meetings between parties can take place on an as needed basis and are not open to the public.”
Scarpino declined to allow a Trib reporter to interview department officials about the topic.
But, Friday afternoon, he provided more details about the meeting.
“A motion by the Health Department counsel was heard on Thursday morning,” Scarpino said in an email. “The motion was to clarify the terms and conditions of the Enforcement Order. Counsel for US Steel was present as were members of the public. A court reporter was present for the hearing and will prepare a transcript which is available to the public.”
A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Smit was disappointed the department did not inform the public an open meeting would still occur when it announced the hearing had been canceled.
“All we’re asking for is good communication from the health department. We don’t want to struggle to find out what’s going on,” Smit said Friday. “Even though the meeting was not a public hearing, it was still a meeting and it would have been nice to know that.”
Rachel Filippini, executive director of Edgewood-based Group Against Smog and Pollution, agreed the health department needs to improve communication.
“The confusion they created yesterday makes it appear as though they are intentionally trying to keep the public from participating,” Filippini said Friday. “We don’t know if that’s the case, but how else should we view a hearing that occurred after (the department) published a notice that it was canceled?”
Filippini and other members of the Edgewood pollution group planned to attend the hearing before learning it was canceled, she said.
One other member of another local environmental organization attended the open portion of the meeting, Smit said.
When the Trib shared Smit’s and Filippini’s concerns with Scarpino, he apologized.
“While administrative hearings are not subject to the (Pennsylvania) Sunshine Act, the Health Department expects its staff and legal team to be fully transparent in this matter,” Scarpino wrote in an email to the Trib Friday. “The lack of clarity related to yesterday’s hearing was an error and has been addressed with the appropriate parties to ensure it is not repeated. Although some members of the public were still in attendance, we recognize that not every interested party had notice or the opportunity to attend because of this oversight and, for that, we apologize.”
The statement was also posted to the department’s Facebook page Friday afternoon.
There is a high public interest in the U.S. Steel’s Clairton plant, especially to the families who live nearby, Smit said. She attended the meeting partly to get information to report back to them.
“I’m painfully aware of the ongoing pollution and emissions coming from that plant,” Smit said. “We’d like to see cleaner air.”
Since 2012, eight of the county’s nine air monitors, called PM 2.5 monitors, which measure air pollution, have met or exceeded EPA standards, the department said in an April news release after an American Lung Association report ranked the Pittsburgh region as the 10th worst in the country for short-term particle pollution. The only monitor not meeting standards is located in the Liberty-Clairton area, Scarpino said at the time.
On Friday, monitors in Liberty and Lawrenceville were “moderate” for PM 2.5 while monitors in Harrison, Lawrenceville and South Fayette were “good” for ozone, according to a department web page.
PM 2.5 is a reference to the size of the particulate matter measured, in this case 2.5 microns or smaller. The particles are tiny enough to harm the human respiratory system and lungs.
In addition to the fine, the department’s enforcement action could require the plant to shut down two of its batteries, Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker said during a July Board of Health meeting.
“This is the first time the health department has actually levied any kind of enforcement action like this,” Hacker said at the July meeting.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the topic of the hearing held Thursday.
Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Theresa at 412-380-5669, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tclift.
Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Theresa at 412-380-5669, email@example.com or via Twitter .