From her front porch, Collette Williams can see the lights of U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, between the houses across the street. She can pick out the different colors of smoke and steam emanating from “the mill.”
“That’s like a white smoke,” she says on an overcast afternoon. “And then over there, like a dark smoke.”
Western Pennsylvania’s steel industry may be a shell of what once was. But the Clairton works, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, remains North America’s largest producer of coke, a key component in making steel. Coke is basically pure carbon, made from baking coal at high temperatures, a process that can create a lot of pollution.
On this day the fumes aren’t too bad, owing to rain that has just come through. But on some days the rotten egg odor of sulfur is inescapable, a rich, earthy smell that sticks to the back of the throat. What’s in the air is worse, especially for her son, SaVaughn, 13.
The sixth-grader has persistent asthma. He takes four medications daily, a regimen of inhalers, nebulizers and pills to calm the inflammation that can make it hard for him to catch his breath.
Williams won’t let him play football because if he plays in bad weather, he could catch a cold and have breathing problems for weeks. Instead of walking a few blocks to school in the winter, he gets a bus, to avoid the risk of getting sick. But there’s one trigger that’s hard to avoid: according to the EPA, the air here is some of the dirtiest in the country.
“The pollution in here in Clairton is horrible,” she says. “When the smoke comes up, smoke rises so it comes immediately up here.”
About three years ago SaVaughn’s asthma started flaring up, leading to ER visits, more doctors, and more medication. Around this same time, regulators say, the plant’s air pollution got worse.
It’s impossible to say whether SaVaughn’s problems were linked to the coke works. But one research team has found asthma rates for kids in Clairton are double the countywide rate.
“He can’t be a normal kid,” Williams says. “He can’t run around and go play and stay over other kids’ houses because I don’t know how his asthma is going to react, or how he’s going to handle the situation when he’s not around me.”
“What we were doing in the past wasn’t working”
There are around 20 coke plants in the US, and many have violated clean air laws. In Clairton, it’s been a problem for decades.
The plant, which employs more than 1,000 people, spans three miles of the Monongahela River. And though it’s cleaner than when it employed 4,000 people in the 1970s, it’s still one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Western Pennsylvania.
Regulators reached major settlements with United States Steel Corporation over Clairton’s pollution violations in 1979, 1993, 2007, 2008, 2014, and 2016. But after every agreement, the plant would fail to meet requirements.
“Apparently, what we were doing in the past wasn’t working,” says Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health at the Allegheny County Health Department.
Last June, the department tried something new. It issued an order threatening to idle parts of the plant if U.S. Steel didn’t cut pollution. The penalty also carried a $1 million fine for what the county said were “ever-increasing visible emissions and unexplained exceedance[s].”
Kelly says some of the worst emissions come from the doors of coke ovens, which are opened every time coal is put inside to bake, and every time the finished coke is pushed out. A bad seal on a door can leak out raw coke oven gas, which is classified by the EPA as a hazardous air pollutant.
“We’re just not seeing that dedication to maintaining that facility and maintaining just good basic operational practices,” Kelly says.
U.S. Steel is appealing the enforcement order, which attorney Chip Babst calls “aggressive and adversarial.”
In an emailed statement, company spokeswoman Meghan Cox called the penalty “unprecedented” and said the plant “must operate in compliance with the most rigorous and stringent environmental regulatory standards in the entire country.”
“It’s crazy to have trees here”
One man who’s especially worried about the future of the plant is Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi. He works for U.S. Steel at a nearby facility that processes steel made with Clairton coke.
Clairton once had 25,000 residents. Now, there are just 6,000. Lattanzi says he’s trying to keep the town from shrinking more.
“Do you realize what would happen to the city of Clairton and to the city’s school district if we closed that mill down?” he says. “We would not be here today. We’d be like a ghost town.”
Lattanzi is 54, and says the air quality in Clairton has improved over the course of his lifetime. He remembers when pollution left the hillsides across the Monongahela River from the coke works barren rock. On a drive along the river, he points to the same hillside, now overgrown with trees.
“Years ago, nothing was able to grow, nothing,” he says. “It’s crazy to have trees here. It was all, like, stones and… nothing.”
Lattanzi’s father worked at the coke works and he remembers the smell his father’s clothes would have when he came home from a shift. He says his house, which is just a few blocks from the plant, doesn’t smell like that anymore.
“If U.S. Steel has some problems down there, let’s work together to go ahead and improve them or fix them,” he says. Lattanzi says he wants clean air, too, but wants the plant to stay open. “We can’t shut them down. You’re shutting down the city of Clairton.”
A higher risk for asthma
Pollution at an air monitor a mile downwind from the plant has gone up since 2014. In 2017, it recorded the highest year-round amount of fine particles of any air monitor east of the Rockies, according to the EPA. And this pollution has health impacts.
Fine particles are small enough to go deep into the human lung, said Stavros Garantziotis, medical director of the clinical research unit at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in an email. “In general, the further down pollution particles can penetrate in our lungs, the more dangerous they are,” he said.
Garantziotis said pollution causes inflammation in the lung, which can set off a cascade of responses from the immune system that ultimately lead to constricted passageways.
This can cause asthma attacks, says Deborah Gentile, an allergy and asthma specialist at Duquesne University. She’s part of a team that conducts a twice-monthly asthma clinic inside Clairton’s elementary and high school, and has been studying pollution and asthma near Pittsburgh. They found that kids who lived closer to big pollution sources, like the Clairton Coke Works, had a higher risk for asthma.
“There’s multiple triggers, but bad air is one that is affecting everyone,” Gentile says. “It’s not like if we close this plant, all these kids’ asthma is going to totally go away. But it’s probably going to improve.”
“You don’t get paid” for less air pollution
After decades of violations, county officials say their threat to idle parts of the plant is needed to get the region’s air quality in compliance with EPA standards. But Chip Babst, an attorney for U.S. Steel, says cooperation is better.
A previous agreement between the county and the company over emissions at some of the plant’s smokestacks resulted in a compliance rate of 99 per cent, he says. “No litigation involved, no lawyers needed to be involved.”
Babst says the company has invested a lot to retrofit equipment in older parts of the plant that date to the 1950s. The last major overhaul, completed in 2012, cost $500 million.
But environmental groups want some units completely replaced if the plant is going to stay open. Babst doesn’t think that’s necessary.
“You can always say ‘new is better’,” he says. “But new is very, very expensive.”
Chuck Bradford, a steel industry analyst, says building whole new coke-making facilities is not “economically viable” for companies like U.S. Steel.
“Normally, when a company builds a new plant, you want either lower costs or better quality,” Bradford says. “With coke making you don’t get that. You might have less air pollution, but you don’t get paid for that.”
U.S. Steel says having to idle part of its operation in Clairton would force dozens of layoffs and could damage expensive equipment.
A decision on the idle order is expected in a few months.
Reid Frazier is a reporter for The Allegheny Front, a public radio program based in Pittsburgh that covers the environment.