In a Steel Town Outside Pittsburgh, an Old Fight Over Air Quality Drags On

When the town of Clairton, Pennsylvania, was founded a few miles south of Pittsburgh at the start of the 20th century, the only thing there was a steel mill. “At the beginning of 1901, the town of Clairton was a field,” a newspaper article from 1904 explained. “The Clairton steel mill first began operations in that year and the idea of building a town followed.” 

The town sprang up around the mill and was named for the company that originally owned it, the St. Clair Steel Company. Within a year, after rapid expansion, “the people in that vicinity awakened to the fact that Clairton was not a fable.” In 1904, St. Clair sold the mill to U.S. Steel. 

More than a century later, the Clairton Coke Works is still operating in Clairton, and it is still owned by U.S. Steel, which uses coke, a fuel for blast furnaces made from coal, for steel manufacturing nearby. But that early vision of the plant as an engine of the town’s growth—and an essential element of its identity—is no longer universally accepted, and disputes over the pollution it produces have roiled Clairton and neighboring communities for years. 

On Jan. 10, residents, local officials, U.S. Steel employees and environmental advocates gathered at the Clairton Municipal Building to weigh in on the Coke Works’ Title V operating permit, a document issued by the Allegheny County Health Department and overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency that outlines a facility’s obligations to control air pollution under the Clean Air Act. 

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This hearing, and a second meeting that took place on Jan. 17, have become the latest field of battle between the steel company and people living near the Coke Works who say that pollution from the plant is making them sick and preventing progress in Clairton.

The Coke Works is the largest coke plant in the United States and one of the largest sources of pollution in Allegheny County, producing 13,000 tons of coke a day from 18,000 tons of coal. In 2021, PennEnvironment named the Coke Works the most toxic air polluter in Allegheny County, responsible for 60 percent of the county’s air pollution emissions from industrial sites. Because of its age and size, the plant represents a massive challenge to regulators. 

“It’s such an old facility. Even its updated batteries are old,” said Patrick Campbell, the executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), a Southwestern Pennsylvania nonprofit focused on air quality. “There’s just so many thousands of points of emissions locations. It’s astounding.”

“We had a visitor come who is working on cleaning up coke plants around the world. She’s been to plants in China and Pakistan and Indonesia, and she said she’s never seen anything like the Clairton Coke Works: the pollution levels, the rundown nature of the facility and the scale of it,” said Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, an organization that monitors air quality and pollution in Southwestern Pennsylvania. “When you hear that from people who come from the outside it really is telling.”   

In a statement, a U.S. Steel representative noted the company’s commitment to “safe and environmentally responsible” steelmaking and said that U.S. Steel maintains “a compliance rate over 99 percent and attainment with all National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”

Since 2020, U.S. Steel has been fined more than $11 million for air quality violations at the Clairton Coke Works, and litigation is ongoing over a fire that broke out at the plant on Christmas Eve in 2018, destroying the facility’s pollution controls. 

“It’s loud,” said Melanie Meade, a resident of Clairton who said noises from the Coke Works often keep her up at night. “Since the fire I think I get a little bit anxious if I hear certain sounds for too long.”

After burying her parents and two siblings between 2011 and 2015, she attributes her family members’ early deaths from cardiac problems and lung cancer to years of exposure to the Coke Works. When the Shenango Coke Works, 25 miles north of Clairton, closed in 2016, the number of ER visits in the surrounding areas for cardiovascular issues immediately dropped

Meade said her son has developed allergies since they moved back to Clairton from North Carolina, and sometimes she can smell the Coke Works in her house, a scent like something rotten “coming in through the windows.” She tells her son not to play outside on days when the air is particularly bad. A 2020 study showed that 22 percent of children living near the Coke Works had asthma, three times the national rate, and there was a doubling of asthma attacks after the Christmas Eve fire. The Clairton elementary school is less than a mile from the mill.  

To Meade, the Coke Works’ spewing smokestacks are a reminder of the town’s indifference toward its citizens’ well-being, 40 percent of whom are African American. Twenty-three percent of Clairton’s residents live below the poverty line.

“If we lived in Bethel Park, it just wouldn’t happen,” she said. Bethel Park is a largely white suburb of Pittsburgh with a median household income of more than $100,000. For Meade, the Title V permit fight is a symptom of the larger problem of environmental racism. 

Meade also disagrees with the common contention from industry supporters that the Coke Works is vital to the region’s economy and to Clairton’s survival. “McKeesport and Duquesne and Clairton all look like the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ cities. None of those cities are flourishing,” she said. “So I don’t see what Clairton Coke Works is doing for them.” 

Mehalik, of the Breathe Project, said plants like the Coke Works “hold back these communities from attracting new investment and reinvestment in the infrastructure of the county.” 

The population of Clairton has been in decline since the 1960s. 

“It’s hard to thrive when 20 percent of your school kids get asthma,” said Qiyam Ansari, the president of Valley Clean Air Now, a grassroots environmental organization based in Clairton. Ansari was once one of those kids. His family moved to Braddock Hills, a Mon Valley town about 15 miles north of Clairton, 14 years ago when he was in high school.

“My asthma was considered mild at the time,” he said. But during a bad air quality day when he was 17, he had such a severe asthma attack that his lung collapsed. “I died in the ambulance. They resuscitated me, and in the hospital, they put me in a medicated coma because my lungs weren’t responding to the medicine. My doctor said, ‘If you have another asthma attack, we can’t guarantee that you’ll survive.’”

Ansari’s ordeal inspired him to pursue the work he does now with VCAN, even though living in the Mon Valley poses risks to his health. “I’ve made up my mind that I’m OK dying here,” he said. “So long as I use my life and the time that I have to raise as much awareness as I can.” 

Everyone’s Got to Breathe

When the January hearing dates were announced in December, environmental groups and residents asked the health department to postpone the hearings, pointing to the short notice and the fact that U.S. Steel recently agreed to a deal to sell to the Japanese company Nippon Steel for more than $14 billion. Mehalik said they had not received a response to their request.

The hearings had no virtual option for attendance, and at the Jan. 10 hearing, the stenographer couldn’t make it at the last minute, leaving those who testified worried about whether the department had a full record of their remarks. There were also problems with registration for speakers, Ansari said. “There were residents who signed up and weren’t able to even testify this time,” he said.

Mehalik said that years of delays in the processing of the Coke Works Title V permit and others in Allegheny County amounted to “gross negligence on the part of an air regulator.” The Coke Works’ previous Title V permit, issued by the Allegheny County Health Department in 2012, expired in 2017. 

The Coke Works is the largest coke plant in the United States and one of the largest sources of pollution in Allegheny County, producing 13,000 tons of coke a day from 18,000 tons of coal. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Coke Works is the largest coke plant in the United States and one of the largest sources of pollution in Allegheny County, producing 13,000 tons of coke a day from 18,000 tons of coal. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The ACHD was audited by the EPA, which oversees Title V permits, in 2017. This audit found that 41 percent of the department’s permits were backlogged due to “permitting workloads exceeding staffing levels.” 

“That department is chronically underfunded,” Campbell, GASP’s executive director, said. 

The Allegheny County communications department did not respond to requests for comment for this article.  

Some observers suspected that the health department was trying to clear its permit backlog before a new county executive, Sara Innamorato, was sworn in on Jan. 2. “They pushed it out during an administration change in the middle of winter over a holiday period, and made it difficult for community members to show up and participate,” Mehalik said. “Moving quickly to get permits updated shouldn’t be coming at the expense of the quality of the permit itself.” 

In the fall of 2023, the EPA rejected the health department’s proposed permit from 2022 after environmental groups including GASP, the Clean Air Council, and PennFuture filed a petition. The draft being debated at the January hearings was the result of revisions the department made after that decision. Neither side is happy with the draft now: Environmental advocates said that it still fell short on compliance and monitoring requirements and contained errors, while U.S. Steel and its supporters argued that it went too far, overstepping the intended regulatory purpose of these permits. 

At the Jan. 10 hearing, where each speaker was given three minutes, Mehalik argued that “the history of paying fines instead of reducing emission problems indicates a willingness of U.S. Steel to operate the Coke Works in a pay-to-pollute relationship with ACHD,” calling the draft “inadequate,” according to a recording of the hearing made by Ana Hoffman, director of air quality engagement at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. During her turn to speak, Meade asked the health department to “please consider our public health. … That is your job. And that’s all we’re asking.” 

“The air is cleaner than it has been at any time since the start of the Industrial Revolution,” said Jeff Nobers, the executive director of Pittsburgh Works, a business organization of labor interests as well as manufacturing companies, including U.S. Steel. He said that the debate over the permit was being driven by environmental groups’ desire to “eliminate heavy industry here and elsewhere in the country.” 

One U.S. Steel employee at the hearing asked if the real motivation behind the Title V permit hearings is to “shut down the Clairton Coke Plant, cost 3,000 Pittsburgh employees their jobs and to eliminate the roughly $4.6 billion of economic output in our region.” 

The mayor of Clairton, Richard Lattanzi, who works for U.S. Steel as a safety inspector, said that he believed the pollution had improved. “I have a lot of family, friends and trusted constituents here that I care about and I will do everything possible to keep them safe,” he said. “I live very close to the mill. And there has been a significant improvement in regards to emissions and air quality.”

In a statement, the U.S. Steel representative, Amanda Malkowski, outlined the company’s objections to the permit draft. 

“U.S. Steel seeks a collaborative working relationship with ACHD. However, we are opposed to the department’s proposed changes to the existing Title V permit,” she said.  “We believe ACHD has overstepped its rulemaking authority by imposing restrictions with no legal or technical justification. More than 3,000 Mon Valley Works employees strive each day to ensure their role in the steelmaking process is done in the safest and most environmentally responsible manner.”

Despite the timing of the hearings, dozens of people showed up, Ansari said, and the majority of them spoke against U.S. Steel, a contrast to earlier Title V hearings when U.S. Steel union employees and officials from other towns came in greater numbers. 

The Nippon sale had angered the union, the United Steelworkers, Ansari said, and company incentives to attend these hearings “weren’t enough this time around.” “There were people on Facebook Marketplace selling their U.S. Steel helmets when the news broke,” he said. “It’s almost like when LeBron left Cleveland and everyone was burning his jersey.” 

Ansari attributed the increased attendance at the hearings to VCAN’s efforts to educate residents about the technicalities of the permit and what it means for their daily lives. Still, he wondered how much their voices would matter in the long run. “If we gave 12,000 comments and all of them were against U.S. Steel, I still don’t think that would be enough for them to change what they’re doing,” he said. 

“It’s just frustrating when we have these processes in place where we’re supposed to work together and agree on things that are for the benefit of the community,” he said, and yet the county did not appear to be listening to its constituents, even when they spoke clearly about what they wanted. “I feel like this is something that we can unite on,” he said. “Everyone’s got to breathe.”

“I’ve never felt heard by the health department. It’s always felt like a show for me, a waste of energy and time,” Meade said. But she said she testified at the hearing because she felt that it was important for residents to speak out against the narratives of local politicians and U.S. Steel, even if it appeared not to have any immediate effect. “If you are silent about your pain,” she said, quoting Zora Neale Hurston, “they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

The Writing on the Wall

As the permitting process drags on, Clairton Coke Works has continued to rack up air quality violations and fines, including a $2.2 million penalty for hydrogen sulfides exceedances just last month. The ACHD must now respond to the comments from the hearings before updating the draft again and sending it to the EPA, all of which could take months. Meanwhile, the future of the plant is uncertain.

“I don’t view this facility existing for forever,” Campbell said. “It’s been so neglected in terms of maintenance for so many decades, and I can only imagine the sheer cost of bringing the facility up to basic maintenance standards.” 

Mehalik said that he thought the plant might last another 10 years, if that. “The handwriting is on the wall,” he said, for a plant that relies on coal, especially with the sale to Nippon, which must undergo a U.S. national security review before it can be finalized, looming. The press release announcing the sale emphasized the companies’ shared “decarbonization focus.” “My heart wants to think it will shut down,” Meade said. “But if I were to hold on to that I would get sick.” 

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In 2021, U.S. Steel retracted a plan to invest $1.5 billion in modernizing its Mon Valley facilities, a move that many in the region saw as confirmation that the company did not intend to keep operating those sites long-term. With the sale to Nippon, the Coke Works’ fate seems sealed.  

What that will mean for Clairton is unclear. Ansari said he expected that health outcomes in the community would improve if the plant closed, but that cleaning up the Coke Works site would likely take years, and he was unsure how the town would navigate repurposing the site. “It will be a bumpy ride,” he said. Discussions about what to do if and when the plant was gone weren’t taking place, he said, because that possibility was too uncomfortable to face.

“Clairton has given everything to the plant, and the plant has given very little back to Clairton,” Ansari said. “I think Clairton has a little bit of Stockholm syndrome. We love our abuser. It’s wrapped into our identity. That smell from the coking process—the sulfur dioxide—reminds people of home. It goes deep.” 

Imagining what Clairton could become without the Coke Works feels unfathomable, when Clairton has always seen itself as an extension of the plant. “I think it’s going to take some honest, hard conversations to look at where we actually are, not where we hope we could be,” he said. “The sooner the town wakes up and does that, the better off we’ll be.”

Ansari was reminded of the immensity of that challenge when he was at the latest hearing in Clairton. He saw the city crest, which is an illustration of the steel mill framed against a sky of stars and puffy clouds and bordered by a Latin motto that means “looking forward to the morning.”

“When I was at this hearing, there’s a big crest of Clairton in the background, and the city crest has the plant in it. You see the barges, the bridges, the plant,” he said, “but there’s no town.”

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