Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Clairton Coke Works- An Air Quality Challenge

1 Comment

The Borough of Forest Hills voted to file the enclosed statement in support  of the Allegheny County Health Department Recommendations for better air quality in our area.  The comment period is open until February 28. Statements of support can be sent to jdawes@pahouse.net 


February 20, 2019
To: PA House and Senate Democratic Policy Committee

Senator Jay Costa, Representative Summer Lee
Cc: Rich Fitzgerald, County Executive
Dr. Karen Hacker, Allegheny County Health Department


Re: Comments of Borough of Forest Hills on Clairton Coke Works

The Borough of Forest Hills thanks Senator Jay Costa, Representative Summer Lee and all the members of the Democratic Senate and House Policy Committee for holding public hearings on the matter of air quality in Clairton. We have taken this opportunity to send comments for your consideration based on the needs of our community as directly affected by the US Steel Clairton Coke Works plant operations.
The Borough of Forest Hills is located 13 miles from Clairton in the immediately adjacent valley. The 6,354 citizens of the Borough of Forest Hills are directly affected by the air quality degradation due to increased emissions from the loss of the de-sulphurization equipment at the fire-damaged Coke Works in Clairton.


On December 24, 2018, a fire and explosion at the Clairton Coke Works damaged the air pollution control de-sulphurization system as well as a portion of the plant structure. (1) Since the date of this accident, we have experienced 28 days of unhealthy air quality. (2) US Steel, the plant owner, does not expect repairs to be completed until May of2019. Although the company has adjusted operations to somewhat abate emissions, coke production continues and our citizens are likely to be exposed to unhealthy air conditions for the duration of this repair period.

The 2005 National Air Toxics Assessment report listed Clairton and nearby Glassport as having the 3rd and 4th highest rates of cancer risk from air pollutants in the nation, respectively. (3) While there were improvements in the most recent 2011 report, Allegheny County is still in the top 2% of risk nationally, with much of the area above the threshold the federal government considers acceptable (1 00 in a million).

 According to a study of 1,200 local elementary school children conducted by Dr. Deborah Gentile of the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology for Pediatric Alliance:(4)

• Nearly 39 percent of schoolchildren in the study were exposed to unhealthy levels of outdoor air pollution above the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while almost 71 percent of the students were exposed to levels above the threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
• More than 22 percent of the study participants had physician-diagnosed asthma, but the asthma was uncontrolled for nearly 60 percent of those students.
• Children from eight school systems exposed to the highest levels of PM2.5 from industrial sources had 1.6 times the risk of an asthma diagnosis.
• There was a nearly 5 times greater prevalence of uncontrolled asthma linked to outdoor air pollution, but not to other triggers such as obesity and environmental tobacco smoke exposure, after adjustment for demographics of gender, race, and pove1iy.
• The asthma prevalence rate of22.5 percent among the students evaluated is more than double the Pennsylvania Depmiment of Health’s statewide figure of 10.2 percent for children and the federal rate of 8.6 percent for children, according to the CDC. An Allegheny County Department ofHealth survey for 2015-2016 found that 15.1 percent of adults in the county have a history of asthma. (5)

This study was completed in 2014-2016 when the Clairton Coke Works had pollution abatement equipment in place. Note that this plant is believed to use old desulphurization technology on its batteries, not the “Best Available Control Technology” which is required in similar operations in modern progressive countries such as Sweden and other European countries.6 Repairing the pollution control equipment with old technology, not best available technology, is not acceptable. Now that the control devices and monitoring recorders within the plant are inoperative, the health impact is only exacerbated by the increase in sulfur dioxide and other noxious fumes normally reduced during operations.


This chronic situation, punctuated by periodic excursions of severe pollution over the years, is overdue for permanent redress. This plant initially operated in 1867 and has had only minimum upgrades to control pollution, and then only under direct orders and fines from regulators. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1964, and the toxic emissions standards adopted in 1977 this plant has had continuing violations. United States Steel entered a consent decree in 1970 to clean up the pollution from its plants, but later failed to comply with the decree they had signed. They have contested and appealed every order requiring them to end pollution from operations, including an appeal to the one million- dollar fine recently imposed by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) for the continuing violation ofthe Title V Permit. They have contested enforcement actions, paid fines grudgingly, and threaten shutdown to maintain their
position of entitlement to use the air and rivers for disposal of the waste products of production since 1867. Modern technology is available and in use in other similar facilities that prevent the serious emission profile of the Edgar Thompson Coke Works. The coke operations are not entitled to unlimited use of the air and water for absorbing their pollution. The citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are entitled to clean air and pure water under Article 1, Section 27 of the Constitution which states:
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values o f the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property ofall the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
This standard of entitlement to a healthy environment also extends to the workers in the plants who often experience elevated pollution levels as part of their normal working environment.


Maintaining 19th century industries as we move into the 21st century requires adjustments to reflect the reality of this time. The ACHD has jurisdiction over enforcing the environmental and health standards pertaining to the operation of this plant and other industries in the County. However, the ACHD has only the authority granted in law and under the regulations promulgated for enforcement ofthe law. There are limitations and weaknesses in these laws and regulations that preclude optimum actions to control air and water emissions from industrial operations. It is especially important to address these deficiencies at this time because US Steel has allowed a lease for hydraulic fracturing extraction ofnatural gas operations to commence on its property at Edgar Thompson Works in the immediate future. Without amendments to the controlling laws, the new industrial sources will have the same deficiencies in public health protection that have prevailed for decades, perpetuating the lax control system well into the future. As we in Forest Hills Borough hope to expand high technology and green businesses in our area, we recognize that maintaining a high quality of life standard is critical to the future of our community as well as to the health and safety of all of our citizens.

We offer the following recommendations in support of a positive vision for a more resilient and sustainable future:
We support the recommendations of County Health Director Karen Hacker, presented at the public hearing of the Pennsylvania Operations and Policy Committee on February 7, 2019 at the Clairton Municipal Building,(7) and add some additional recommendations:
1. Amend the 1990 PA Clean Air Act to update the “episode criteria” definition. The current criteria forbid ACHD from taking action unless the pollution level exceeds 800 parts per million. ACHD cannot take necessary actions to protect public health unless the event qualifies as an “episode”8 A pollution ‘Episode’ is defined as occurring ‘when meteorological conditions are conducive to poor dispersion … and the County is under a county-wide ‘air pollution watch.’ Since Clairton pollution does not affect Fox Chapel and Sewickley due to air flow patterns, you will never have a ‘County wide air pollution watch.’
2. No regulation allows ACHD or a court to order the pollution source to do an immediate shut-down or lessening ofproduction (such as going to hot idle for the coke production batteries) if clean air standards are exceeded at monitors. ACHD is required by regulation to issue Title V ‘Permits to pollute’ to large volume sources. These permits are issued pursuant to County Code and the Allegheny County Air Control Regulations, Article XXI, Ch. 505 sec. 16 to 19. State and County regulations need to be strengthened to

allow immediate shutdown of any industrial operation if monitors reveal a pattern of regular violations of emission standards incapable of being controlled by the existing pollution control equipment, regardless whether the source is a major source with a permit to pollute under Title V, or a minor source which is not required to have a Title V Permit. 9
3. Change the regulations so that coke plants and other industries are forced by law to reduce production immediately on any day deemed to be an ‘air action day.’ These air action days include those on which weather and meteorological conditions create inversions that hold pollution close to the ground. The pollution plumes then cannot be dispersed by winds to be diluted in the upper atmosphere. The air pollution then stays close to the ground creating the smelly “smog” that smells of rotten eggs and exacerbates asthma and pulmonary problems.
4. More stringent requirements are needed to deal with fugitive emissions such as those that occur every time the ovens are opened to load or remove coke. Two of the batteries at Clairton are known to have faulty door seals which allow fugitive emissions. Article XXI currently regulating fugitive emissions must be tightened to require compliance with air quality standards when foreseeable events like charging of coke ovens or removal of coke products results in air pollution.
5. The notice of a major event must be shortened. ACHD was not advised until Friday, January 4, 2019 of how seriously the December 24, 2108 fire damaged the pollution control desulphurization equipment, and how huge an effect the loss of this equipment had on the coke works pollution emissions. The current notice provision states that an industry has seven days to notify the ACHD when an ‘incident’ occurs. Allegheny County regulation needs to be amended to require 24-hour notice to ACHD for any pollution event and a strict four- hour notice if a pollution event occurs during any air quality action day. (10)
6. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and ACHD must increase the monetary fines for air quality violations. The current system allows an industry an advantage to pay the minimum fines rather than address the repairs or abate the pollution by using best available control technology 11 .

Additional Ideas to enhance protections of public health:
1. Amend Section 505-13 definition of”air pollution episode.” An episode is currently defined to occur only when meteorological conditions are conducive to poor dispersion. An air pollution episode is defined to occur only when a Countywide air pollution watch is in effect.” Due to the way air flows in the Monongahela Valley, it would be extremely rare to have pollution in Sewickley and Fox Chapel therefore a county-wide watch will never happen. The regulation should be changed so any “air quality action day” will allow definition of an ‘air pollution episode’ in the affected area.

2. Amend Section 505-86 the Clean Air Fund regulation to provide that money in the Clean Air Fund collected from air emission violations can be distributed as a loan to any municipality whose solicitor is authorized to file suit for air pollution violations which constitute a public nuisance. Change the regulation to provide that “In the event that the ACHD hearing examiner or a Court determines that a pollution source constitutes a public nuisance, the municipality is entitled to recover all attorney fees and expenses of the suit, including all amounts loaned to it from the Clean Air Fund.” The purpose of this amendment is to help communities bear the burden of financing public nuisance lawsuits to cure air pollution.

3. Revise the permit requirements for major sources in Allegheny County Air Pollution Code Article XXI. CH. 505 Sections 17-18 dealing with major sources (those emitting more than 100 tons per year of certain hazardous pollutants.) Set forth a revised permit structure to require Best Available Control Technology for all new sources, all major repairs of existing sources, and all modifications of existing sources. The regulation should require Best Available Control Technology, and specifically not allow “Commercially Feasible Technology” which is currently specified in the regulation. The Mon Valley has been a nonattainment region for decades. Requiring ‘Best Available Control Technology,’ not ‘Commercially Feasible’ old technology can fix our pollution problems and prevent worsening conditions from new industrial sources, such as proposed hydraulic fracturing activities in Braddock Hills, Penn Hills and Versailles.
We request that the Allegheny County Health Department conduct specific health surveys in the affected communities surrounding the Clairton Coke Works during the pendency of repairs. The Clean Air Fund will allow expenditures for studies to assess the health effects of pollution and specifically examine the effect that loss of the desulphurization equipment at Clairton Coke Works has had on the Mon valley. Baseline data are available from studies conducted by Dr. Gentile and others, but specific monitoring of the health of the children, elderly, and sensitive populations must occur to maintain a good profile of the harms to the community that occur from the direct effects of this increase in air emissions. This study should include increased monitoring of air quality in the communities correlated with weather patterns and ambient air conditions. Inversions and still air that holds pollutants close to the ground in the valleys surrounding Clairton and throughout the Monongahela Valley can amplify the effects of air emissions on health. Funds for health surveys and community notification are available from
the Clean Air Fund and should be made available for this purpose.
Finally, we request The Clairton Coke Works should be placed in hot idle mode until the repairs to the pollution control equipment are competed. Delays of weeks in reporting incidents of spikes in air pollution are not acceptable. A system of reporting air quality has emerged from citizen observers through social media. However, formal advisories are important, and recommendations for action beyond “stay indoors” must be advanced. It is unreasonable to expect people to avoid outdoor activity for the duration of repairs at the Clairton Coke Works until May 20 19.


Maintaining a high quality of life is critical to our community in Forest Hills Borough as we advance into the 21st century. Attracting families and clean technology businesses to our area is more difficult when there are constant air quality alerts due to operations of a plant designed for the 19th  century. We are adamant about making a just transition to a more resilient and sustainable future for our citizens. That future depends on enhancing the quality of our air, assuring the safety and abundance of drinking water, and preserving park land and an urban forest canopy in our community. It is our obligation as representatives ofthe people we serve to protect their health and safety.


Adopted by vote of Borough Council, February 20,2019

Members:
Nina Sowiski, President
William Tomasic, Vice President William Burleigh
William Gorol
John Lawrence
Dr. Patricia DeMarco
Member of Council on behalf of Members listed above

Citations and References
1. Fire and Explosion at Clairton Coke Works. https://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/news/2019/01/16/u-s-stee1-identifies-likely-cause-of- fire-repairs.htmI
2. Submission Mission air monitors for Dec 24 to Feb 5
3. National Air Toxics Emissions Report- Allegheny county
4. American Lung Association “State of the Air Report 2018” https://www.lung.org/local- content/ content-items/about-us/media/press-releases/pa-pitts-area-worsen-2018.htmI
5. Deborah Gentile study of asthma in children https://www.ahn.org/news/9-8-2017/studv-local- schoolchildren-reveals-alarming-rat s-uncontrolled-a,·Lhma-exp sure-to
6. Michael Hein and Manfred Kaiser. “Environmental Control and Emission Reduction for Coking Plants.” http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/38333/intech-
environmental control and emission reduction for coking plants.pdf
7. Testimony of ACHD Director Karen Hacker begins at 1:22:07 to 1:44:15 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41AD11WE7YU&fbclid=lwAR2VG CWNyFg- MTj8XOqXj51XshNyvmxruG2wv4opGyC-vY7epbzoPw pYw
8. See the PA regulations, 25 PA Code 127.301-303 and also Allegheny County Code’s Air Pollution Control Act, CH 505-13.
9. Andrew Godstein. “Health Department Fines US Steel Clairton Works $1 Million: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 28, 2018. https://vvww.po t-
gazett .com/n w /environm nt/2018/06/28/Health-department-fines-U-S-Steel-Clairton-Coke- W orks-1-million-environmental-compliance/stories/20 1806280180
10. See Allegheny County Air Pollution Control Act Ch 505-13
11. The Post-Gazette news article 2-19-1991 noted it was cheaper to pollute and pay the fines than to eliminate the pollution with best available control technology.

One thought on “Clairton Coke Works- An Air Quality Challenge

  1. Pingback: Clairton Coke Works Fire & Aftermath – Timeline | INVERSION

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