ArcelorMittal agrees to $1.8M settlement over pollution at Monessen plant
ArcelorMittal will pay a $1.8 million settlement to state, federal and local entities over air pollution from its Monessen Coke Plant, an environmental group announced Wednesday.
PennEnvironment filed a federal lawsuit against the international metals company in October 2015, alleging the company had been repeatedly violating limits on air pollution since the plant was re-started in 2014.
“Ever since the company’s idled, decades-old facility restarted in April 2014, individuals and homes have been showered with soot and acidic gases that also have noxious odors. Residents have had their quality of life diminished, have had to endure these odors and soot, and have had to fear for their health,” PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur said in a statement announcing the settlement at the Pittsburgh Foundation’s offices Downtown.
The company said in a statement that restarting the plant was “challenging” and that “the environmental performance during this period was unacceptable.”
“Since then, ArcelorMittal Monessen has been operating under new leadership and working diligently to improve the facility’s performance through a series of investments and actions,” the company said. “Over the last two years, the facility has been on a path of continuous improvement, and we are committed to achieving and maintaining full compliance with all environmental permits.”
Donora resident Viktoryia Maroz, one of the residents whose complaints drew PennEnvironment’s attention to the case, said the air quality after the plant reopened made it “unbearable to breathe.” Toxicology tests she’d taken indicated she had higher-than-normal levels of heavy metals in her system.
“There were multiple times I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would be unable to breathe,” Maroz said. “I would shut off the A/C; I would shut the windows; nothing worked. You feel like you’re trapped in your own house.”
Masur said the plant had more than 226 pollution limit violations for its output of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and sooty particulate matter — sometimes going more than eight times higher than the legal limit. The company hadn’t installed a monitoring device that would track how much toxic, smelly hydrogen sulfide was being burned off in the plant’s boilers and flares; and it had operated without its “desulfurization unit” running for stretches of days or weeks at a time.
The sulfur burning off the coal as it is made into coke is what gives the plant its egg-like smell, which can travel far and wide across the Monongahela River valley when the pollution levels are high and weather conditions keep emissions close to the ground.
“This is a problem that has kind of a reach, unfortunately,” Masur said.
PennEnvironment worked with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and attorneys from Pittsburgh and the Boston-based National Environmental Law Center to negotiate the settlement with ArcelorMittal.
The company said in its statement that it worked collaboratively with the groups.
The DEP had been aware of and investigating the violations at the plant but never initiated a large-scale enforcement action, which helped spur the civil lawsuit, Masur said.
“They did issue notices of violations, but they did not take the kind of bold, aggressive kind of enforcement action that was needed to bring the plant into compliance,” he said.
In a separate statement, the DEP noted it had documented more than 120 violations at the plant before joining with the EPA and PennEnvironment in negotiating the settlement.
“Citizen engagement, coupled with inspections and enforcement at the agency level, is key to effective oversight that fosters real improvements to air quality,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell in the agency’s statement on the case.
As part of the settlement, the company will pay a total of $1.5 million in civil penalties that will be split evenly between the EPA and DEP. Some portion of the settlement may go to the communities like Monessen, but it was unclear Wednesday how much that would be or what it could be used for.
The remaining $300,000 will go to The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County — an affiliate of The Pittsburgh Foundation — for a program to help local communities replace high-pollution municipal vehicles with low-emission, hybrid or electric ones.
“There are things the facility will be doing to reduce its own emissions, and the rest of the payment can help the broader goal of reducing air pollution,” Masur said.
Phil Koch, executive director of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, said the foundation would seek proposals for the settlement money early next year, with a focus on replacing older, high-emission vehicles or building infrastructure like charging stations for zero-emission electric vehicles.
The company agreed that it would pay significant additional penalties if the plant has future violations or fails to follow a plan for environmental upgrades, said Josh Kratka, a senior attorney at the environmental law center. ArcelorMittal will enhance its emissions monitoring, dust emission controls, odor investigations and response to citizens’ complaints.
Some improvements, like the monitoring devices for sulfur emissions and soot, are already in place; the company will have about a year to make other upgrades like the backup sulfur-control system for when the main desulfurization unit is down for maintenance, Kratka said.
Officials blamed the age of the plant, its lack of backups and monitoring, and improperly trained workers for allowing so much soot and pollution to escape the facility.
“The plant is 40 or 50 years old. … Though (ArcelorMittal) did put some money in, literally the day they restarted, complaints started coming in,” Kratka said. “They had a lot of untrained staff or poorly trained new staff at the plant that didn’t know how to run the plant correctly to control emissions.”
The settlement was officially turned over to the federal district court in Pittsburgh Wednesday for approval.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, [email protected] or on Twitter @msantoni.