This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.
For the second time in six months, a fire at US Steel’s Clairton coke works has knocked out the plant’s pollution controls.
No injuries were reported. The company, which reported the fire at 4:43 a.m., said it was “small” and was extinguished quickly.
The fire knocked out the same controls that were offline for more than three months following a Christmas Eve fire at the plant. Over that time period, pollution levels in Allegheny County spiked several times, and thousands in the Pittsburgh area complained about breathing problems and odors.
The Allegheny County Health Department said that the company will use the same measures to disperse its pollution as it did after the December fire. Over that time, the company decreased production of coke, replaced coke oven gas in its production with cleaner-burning natural gas, and flared high-sulfur coke oven gases at locations in nearby Braddock and West Mifflin. As a result, U.S. Steel’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions “skyrocketed” to more than 70,000 pounds a day — five times the amount it’s permitted for, the county reported.
The health department said sensitive groups like the elderly, the young, and those with breathing difficulties don’t have to take added precautions right now. But they should be aware there could be high levels of SO2, which can burn the nose and throat, obstruct airway passages, and make it hard to breathe. There’s no word on when the pollution controls will be back online.
Updates on the fire can be found at the company’s website. US Steel released a statement saying crews are working to get the controls back online. The company didn’t say how long that could take.
The Clairton plant is the largest coke works in North America. To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, it bakes coal at high temperatures.
The plant is subject of several lawsuits and enforcement actions from Allegheny County as a result of air pollution problems. Over the past year, the county has fined US Steel $2.6 million.
The county has twice issued the company orders to ‘hot idle’ the plant, where the coke ovens are kept hot but no coke is produced. But US Steel says that process could be dangerous and cause permanent damage to its coke ovens, which are sensitive to heat and operational changes.
Environmental groups were quick to criticize both the company and the county health department for the plant’s pollution record.
“Yet another fire at this aging facility further underscores the dangers of allowing US Steel to continue to operate what amounts to a doomsday machine that cannot be turned off when pollution controls are knocked off-line,” said Ashleigh Deemer, the Western PA Director for PennEnvironment. “The residents of the Mon Valley deserve clean air, not more illegal pollution from U.S. Steel.”