Groups sue U.S. Steel, allege potentially ‘thousands’ of Clean Air Act violations

US Steel's Clairton Coke Works. (Reid R. Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

US Steel's Clairton Coke Works. (Reid R. Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

This story originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Two environmental groups have sued U.S. Steel over alleged Clean Air Act violations following a Dec. 24 fire that knocked the plant’s pollution controls offline for over three months.

Under its Clean Air Act permits, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant is required to run the gas that comes out of its coke ovens through pollution controls. But the Christmas Eve fire knocked that part of the plant out. Instead of shutting down or going on idle, the company sent its unfiltered gases to flares at Clairton and two other nearby plants.

The lawsuit says that put the people who live near the plants — at least 90,000 people live within a three-mile radius of the Clairton Plant, for example — at risk from toxic air pollution.

“We think that U.S. Steel should both remedy what’s wrong at their plant and make upgrades that will prevent this from happening again, and also pay for damages to the community,” said Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania director of PennEnvironment, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that U.S. Steel ran these plants without essential pollution controls claiming there was no safe way to pause their activities.”

The company appealed a February order by the Allegheny County Health Department to put the plant on hot idle — where its ovens remain hot but produce no coke — saying that it could put worker safety in jeopardy.

The groups want U.S. Steel to come up with an alternate mechanism to deal with its coke oven gas — a mixture that contains hazardous air pollutants, carcinogens, and other pollutants — should its pollution controls fail again.

“We know that pollution controls have come off-line before — there are malfunctions at the plant from time to time. And there should be a way to re-route that coke oven gas to another pollution control so that this never happens,” Deemer said.

The pollution controls were put back on line in early April.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, alleges violations at three U.S. Steel plants — Clairton, Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, and Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock — and seeks a penalty for U.S. Steel of up to $97,229 per day, per violation, as set by the Clean Air Act.

Josh Kratka, an attorney with the National Environmental Law Center, which is participating in the lawsuit, said in an email there is no tally of how many violations the company had over the three months without pollution controls — but there could be many.

“The suit alleges that U.S. Steel violated dozens of Clean Air Act permit conditions, and violated most of them roughly 100 days in a row,” Kratka said in an email. “We have not put together an actual count but it is likely in the thousands.”

The Allegheny County Health Department has issued $2 million in fines to the company for air violations at the plant in the past year, though none of those fines was for air pollution violations after the Dec. 24 fire.

Clairton is the country’s largest source of coke, a key component of steelmaking.

The lawsuit comes two weeks after filings for two other Clairton-related lawsuits, one by environmental groups against the EPA over its coke oven standards, and a class action lawsuit filed by residents of the Mon Valley.

Meghan Cox, a spokeswoman for U.S. Steel, says the company is reviewing the complaint.

The company has 60 days to respond in federal court.

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