The Lead

Allegheny Co.’s fine against U.S. Steel for air quality violations is too small, environmentalists say

By: - January 11, 2022 5:07 pm

Clairton Coke Works (Pittsburgh City Paper photo)

By Jordana Rosenfeld

PITTSBURGH —  Last week, the Allegheny County Health Department issued a civil penalty to U.S. Steel for allowing the emission of hundreds of pounds of air pollutants following an equipment breakdown this past summer at Clairton Coke Works in Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley.

The Health Department fined U.S. Steel $5,500: $2,500 for the one-day violation on Aug. 27, 2021, another $2,500 for U.S. Steel’s history of nine violations in the last two years, and an additional $500 for a violation relating the federal Clean Air Act.

Some air quality advocates feel a $5,500 fine is too low for “perennial air polluter U.S. Steel.”

Reacting to the county’s fine, the environmental advocacy organization Group Against Smog and Pollution said in a statement that, “For those who are saying to themselves out loud right now, ‘Wait, wait, wait, only $5,500?’ we want you to know: We’re right there with you.”

GASP says this newest enforcement action from Allegheny County Health Department appeared on the ACHD website on Wed., Jan. 5. The enforcement action itself is dated Dec. 15, 2021.

On Aug. 27, 2021, at 9:55 AM, U.S. Steel reported to the ACHD via telephone an obstruction in the standpipe of C Battery Oven C21 which caused venting from that oven. About an hour later, the ACHD received a voice message from U.S. Steel stating that a “restriction” in the standpipe was causing a release of emissions from the “charging hole.”

A follow-up report from U.S. Steel said that emissions continued for five hours and ten minutes until the obstruction was removed using air lances and that total emissions from this violation included almost 50 pounds of carbon monoxide, 99 pounds of “volatile organic compounds,” and almost eight pounds of coke oven emissions.

Civil penalties for air quality violations are calculated considering a number of factors such as toxicity of pollutant, amount of pollutant, and length of violation. Other “adjustment factors” that could mitigate or exacerbate a fine include degree of cooperation in resolving the violation, compliance history, degree of willfulness of the violation, and the size of violator. According to state law, the maximum fine allowed for air quality violations is $25,000 per day for each violation.

U.S. Steel Spokesperson Amanda Malkowski wrote in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper, “The isolated issue was resolved quickly. There were no associated exceedances at the Liberty Monitor. We promptly alerted the Allegheny County Health Department.”

Allegheny County Health Department Spokesperson Chris Togneri declined to comment on the filings.

While air quality advocates may be disappointed by the seemingly mild nature of the ACHD’s enforcement order, they are probably not surprised. A 2019 settlement agreement between ACHD and U.S. Steel to resolve appeals to three enforcement actions and one administrative order significantly limited ACHD’s authority and ability to enforce penalties. Advocates say this latest penalty perfectly exemplifies flaws in the 2019 settlement.

Jordana Rosenfeld is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared

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