Clairton, PA, wants to be clear: Residents demand accountability from U.S. Steel

"Right now, we are in an emergency, we are in a crisis"

CLAIRTON, Pennsylvania—Driving into Clairton, just 30 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, you see smoke stacks of the U.S. Steel Coke Works plant rise over the hills as the road weaves up and over them, and you smell a change in the air, even with the windows closed.

On Thursday, a local citizen group and environmental organizations held a listening panel to bring together those who have been affected by this air pollution and who are concerned about the health impacts of living near the coke plant, which heats coal to high temperatures to convert it into coke—used to manufacture steel.

"Right now we are in an emergency, we are in a crisis," said resident Reita Derrick, who led the meeting.

Resident Reita Derrick led the meeting. (Credit: Jessi Quinn Alperin)

The meeting was called as a response to a fire that happened at Clairton Coke Works on December 24, 2018, and a recent report released by Clean Water Action on failures of the Mon Valley, where the Coke Works plant is located, to meet national air quality standards.

The report focused largely on sulfur dioxide and particulate pollution, finding that 91 percent of the exceedances of these pollutants across Allegheny County are found to be in Mon Valley, most because of U.S. Steel.

Mon Valley has the worst air quality in Pennsylvania based on its history of federal Clean Air Act violations over the last 12 years. There have been 402 times sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter pollution exceeded safety thresholds at Mon Valley monitors since the standards were set in 2006 (for particulate matter) and 2010 (for SO2), according to the report.

Credit: Jessi Quinn Alperin

More than 50 residents showed up, many steaming and ready to have their voices heard. The meeting was the latest effort to put public pressure on U.S. Steel and regulators to address the residents' consistent exposure to air pollution.

Kim Meach, 60 years old and a lifelong resident of Clairton, spoke about her father who passed away when he was 60 from leukemia. "My father didn't suffer long. He felt like he had a cold, went to the hospital on Sunday, was diagnosed with acute leukemia on Tuesday, and died on Saturday."

Meach's story of family cancer rung true for many residents at the town hall. She worries she will soon pass from the same health problems that affected her parents because U.S. Steel is not invested in improving their technology and reducing their emissions.

An EHN investigation last month found the total exposure concentration (or average level of exposure) to cancer-causing coke oven emissions for residents of Allegheny County, which encompasses Clairton, is 99 percent higher than it is for the U.S. population as a whole and 88 percent higher than Pennsylvania's population as a whole.

"We all know we have a problem here," Meach said. "And if nobody speaks up and says anything about it, they're going to continue to poison us."

Residents decried what they see as U.S. Steel's disinterest in reducing emissions, and pushed for stronger regulations. Every resident who spoke talked about increased health problems and symptoms since the Christmas Eve fire. U.S. Steel did not attend the meeting on Thursday.

Credit: Jessi Quinn Alperin

Without improved infrastructure and lines of communication, residents will continue to suffer and be at risk for premature death, they said.

Citizens for Clean Air, a group of residents who live in Clairton and the Mon Valley who put on the listening session, is calling for regular meetings between representatives of U.S. Steel, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and environmental organizations in the Pittsburgh region.

They are also calling for a task force to be established to create an emergency plan should another fire break out in the Coke Works facility. This emergency plan would include a strategy to announce the danger to the public and a possible evacuation plan.

"If there were another horrific incident…for the community's sake, as well as for the employees, we need to have an emergency plan, and ensure that the public is aware of this plan, and that all 22 communities [of the Mon Valley] are notified immediately," Derrick said.

Credit: Jessi Quinn Alperin

Their final request was for U.S. Steel to invest $400 million – which is less than half of what they plan to spend on upgrading Mon Valley Works to become a "Cogeneration" facility (a facility that makes steel and energy)—to fix leaking ovens and bringing all technology up to health and safety standards.

"U.S. Steel says they've cleaned up the air?" said resident David Meckel, who held up a rag covered in soot. "Well if they cleaned up the air, why do we still have this? Why do we still have to breathe this? We shouldn't have to breathe this. We don't deserve this."

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