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‘Razorblades & Feathers in My Throat’: A Fire at a Pittsburgh Steel Plant Made a Major Polluter Even Worse



The country's largest coke plant was without pollution controls for over three months. Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front

The complaint came in on an answering service for the Allegheny County Health Department’s air quality hotline on Dec. 26 at 8:17 p.m.: “SMELL IS VERY BAD CANNOT EVEN LET DOGS OUT.”

Another came in later that night, from Squirrel Hill: NEIGHBORHOOD SMELLS OF ROTTEN EGGS.


They kept coming. Over three months, thousands poured in to the health department, by telephone, online, or through a smart phone app.

Complaints obtained from the health department reveal descriptions of an industrial stench wafting over the old milltowns of the Monongahela River valley — “A STRONG ODOR OF SULFUR” or “STRONG BURNING SMELL” — and resulting health effects: “It’s causing coughing for my husband and I,” said one person from Dravosburg on Jan. 3.

The cause was U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant.

On Christmas Eve, a fire at the plant crippled its air pollution controls. For three months, the Pittsburgh area was blanketed with releases of sulfur dioxide much higher than usual.

For two weeks, the public was largely unaware of the releases. On Jan. 9, after six spikes of pollution above federal air quality standards, the county issued an air alert for the area. Residents criticized the county for the lack of information before the warning.

The county ultimately issued an April 15 deadline to the company to fix its pollution equipment. On April 5, 10 days ahead of schedule, the steelmaker finished its repairs.

But worries about air pollution, and its health impacts, remain.

The Clairton plant is the largest coke works in North America. To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, it bakes coal at high temperatures. The process creates sulfur-rich coke oven gas. The plant normally removes much of that sulfur from its waste stream, but the fire put a temporary halt to that.

To dispose of the gas, before the pollution controls were fixed, the plant flared it at several locations throughout the Mon Valley.

As a result, U.S. Steel emitted more than 70,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide (SO2) a day — five times the amount it’s permitted for, said Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health at the Allegheny County Health Department.

“That’s a lot of pollution. It’s a lot of coke oven gas and so this a large opportunity for excess SO2,” Kelly said.

Doreen Luff, of Jefferson Hills, Pa., with her daughter Katie, 9, and son Jimmy, 6, in their back yard overlooking US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front

“It’s a pretty acrid smell. The problem with sulfur dioxide is, in the air, in the presence of water, it forms sulfuric acid. So you can just imagine what that does when you breathe it into your lungs.”

What it does is burn the nose and throat, obstruct airway passages, and make it hard to breathe.

From her back yard on top of a hill, Doreen Luff can see the Clairton Plant — and smell it.

“When the wind blows, it blows the sulfur up here pretty good,” she says.

Since moving to her house in the community of Jefferson Hills 12 years ago, Luff could always smell the plant, some days worse than others. But after the fire, things got worse. On warm days, she keeps her windows closed.

Her kids’ schools stopped outdoor recess on bad air days. And in January, her 9-year-old daughter Katie got asthma. Luff blames the plant.

“She’s never been sick like that before, but now she has asthma. She has to use an inhaler,” Luff said. “I get nauseous, I have headaches, constant dizziness.”

She’s not alone. Her neighbor, Reita Derrick, says the air has made her cough: “It feels like I have at the same time razorblades and feathers in my throat.”

Another neighbor, Christa Gaugler, said her kids complained of sore throats and burning eyes. Gaugler said after the fire she experienced a “thickness” in the back of her throat, “a nasty taste that will not go away.”

Jacob Fleming, of Glassport, said he started wheezing after riding his bike. “I’ve never had any issues breathing. I feel like I have asthma now,” he said.

Environmental groups and angry residents criticized the health department for not doing enough to protect air quality after the fire. But Kelly says the agency did what it could, within the bounds of the law.

Kelly said the department couldn’t just order the plant to close down while it fixed those controls because he didn’t think a judge would allow it. That’s because coke ovens need to stay hot, or else they break down.

“To replace a coke oven is about $500 million,” Kelly said. “That’s something a judge will take into consideration if we order them to cease operation.”

In February, the county tried to order U.S. Steel to put the plant on a hot idle — where the plant stays hot, but produces no coke. The agency backed down when it learned that U.S. Steel said it would have taken longer to put the plant on idle than to just repair its pollution controls.

A flare at US Steel’s Irvin Works overlooks the town of Glassport, Pa. Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front

One of U.S. Steel’s flares overlooks the nearby town of Glassport. Outside the Dollar Tree there where she works, Jennifer Magura said the air was so bad she got bronchitis this winter.

“I have a rescue inhaler and I’ve been using it, like, nonstop,” she said. “I mean, I already emptied two in the last two weeks and it’s just hard to breathe.”

Magura is a smoker, but says the kinds of breathing problems she’s had this winter are different.

I’ve smoked all my life, so I know what that’s like and I know when things are worse than usual, because when I go to downtown Pittsburgh I’m not struggling as much to breathe. And that’s like in the same day.”

But some aren’t so bothered by the plant’s air pollution, as long as it is providing jobs. Hilda Lueckert of Clairton said she couldn’t really smell anything different in the air. She’s lived in Clairton all her life, and her son works at the plant.

“Well, everything needs to be cleaned up. They do have to follow (environmental) guidelines. But as long as there’s smoke comin’ out of there, I know the men are going to have their jobs. So…I don’t have any complaints about it.”

The Clairton plant employs 1,200, and supports another 1,800 jobs at two other U.S. Steel mills nearby.

Lueckert remembers the days when the air was so bad in Clairton you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The plant is much cleaner than in those days, she said. U.S. Steel said it’s already spent $37 million in pollution controls since 2016, and is spending $65 million more to improve those controls. The company reported profits of $1.15 billion in 2018.

“Give them a chance to work on it,” she said. “Instead of shutting everything down, and having all these men out of a job. Give them a chance to improve it.”

Back at her home in Jefferson Hills, Doreen Luff says she’s thought about moving, but she doesn’t think her family can afford to right now. Her husband Bryan works for Verizon and she’s a stay-at-home mom.

I talked about moving, but I think we’re financially unable to,” she said. “So we’re kind of stuck here like a lot of people are.”

Her 9-year-old daughter, Katie, said on some days, she has tried to hold her breath when she goes outside to wait for the bus.

“And I’m not really good at holding my breath,” she said. “It kind of smells like sulfur. I don’t, I don’t like that…I don’t like it at all.”

Luff is glad the mill has put the pollution controls back on, but she says some days the air is still unbearable. She hopes her headaches go away, and that her daughter’s breathing gets better, eventually.

This article was originally published by The Allegheny Front. The Allegheny Front is produced in Pittsburgh and reports on the environment. More at


House Dems Looking to Restore Obama-era Policies on Public Land Oil & Gas Leases



Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California chairing an earlier meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. Photo: Courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources

The Democratically controlled House of Representatives is continuing its push to essentially reverse the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations, this time focusing on a policy that has largely impacted rural and native populations in the U.S.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held its third hearing last week on a bill to change the policies that govern leasing for oil and gas development on public lands through a bill to restore community input in the leasing process. H.R 3225, Restoring Community Input and Public Protections in Oil and Gas Leasing Act of 2019, is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mike Levin of California.

The process of granting leases for development on public lands falls under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the federal Department of Interior (DOI). In a January 2018 policy, the BLM shortened the protest period for lease sales from 30 to 10 days, removed the requirement for the public to be involved during the lease nominations, and removed the 30-day review and comment period for environmental reviews. H.R. 3225 would reverse the shortened time periods to previous standards and also increase royalty and rental rates for leases on public lands.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California opened Thursday’s hearing by saying that the government’s responsibility to balance access to natural resources on public lands with protective measures to secure it for future generations cannot be accomplished without input from local public and tribal communities. He accused the BLM of instead prioritizing the size and frequency of lease sales in the last couple years.

But the BLM’s Deputy Director of Operations Michael Nedd defended the current policy and reminded the committee nearly half of the generated revenue goes back to the lease host states. Nedd said that in 2018 the federal lands produced over $3 billion in federal revenue and added 2018 was a record year for lease sales revenue.

He was supported by a number of GOP members of the committee who pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as already providing a space for community input on such leases. The NEPA is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, requiring the EPA to review and comment on the environmental impact statements of all other federal agencies under the Clean Air Act.  

The 2018 policy changes were also meant to remove redundancy in oversight of these leases and reduce the unnecessary burden on businesses created by the previous presidential administration, according to ranking minority member Paul Gosar. 

Gosar pointed to a number of Obama-era policies he said are the reason the U.S. had seen drastic declines in the number of leases managed by the BLM. According to Gosar, by the end of Obama’s administration, the number was the lowest since 1985. 

The current policy, however, has led to a score of ongoing lawsuits attempting to block the leases, which Lowenthal said were a direct result of excluding tribal and other communities from the consultation process. Among them are proposed lease sales in Nevada’s Ruby Mountain, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and efforts to hold a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

And during previous subcommittee hearings, members were presented with evidence that despite increasing revenues, there have been negative impacts to the health of both the people and the environment of the communities experiencing what Gosar called an “energy renaissance.” 

Emily Collins, who testified at a subcommittee meeting earlier this year, represents rural residents in the Pittsburgh and Akron areas through the non-profit Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services. Since 2014, Collins testified, 33 to 42 percent of the cases she’s taken on have involved oil and gas extraction, and 45 individual cases related specifically to water contamination.

Collins said the vast majority of her clients’ environmental problems were caused by a “lack of governmental investigation of the site-specific geological characteristics of the areas being developed and under resourced local jurisdictions.”

Len Necefer, a professor of both American Indian Studies and Public Policy at the  University of Arizona, recalled a long and personal history of health impacts among his Navajo community from unchecked, or under-regulated energy development during his testimony last week. 

The bill was introduced on June 12 and is now on course for a full committee hearing before it can make its way to the House chamber. The date for the full House Natural Resources Committee hearing hasn’t been set yet.

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Trump Administration Replaces Obama-Era Climate Change Rule on Power Plants



Mt. Storm Power Plant in West Virginia. Photo: Cecilia Mason/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday released its long-awaited final replacement for the Obama administration’s signature climate change regulation, which sought to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by one-third by 2025.

The Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, or ACE, tasks states with developing plans that rely on the use of efficiency technologies to reduce carbon emissions at existing power plants.

That stands in contrast to its predecessor, the Clean Power Plan, which was never fully-implemented. The controversial rule, which was challenged in court by 27 states including West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, took a broad approach to reducing emissions throughout the power sector.

At a press conference, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the final ACE rule ensures a future for coal-fired power plants.

“ACE will continue our nation’s environmental progress and it will do so legally and with proper respect to our states,” he said. “We are leveling the playing field and encouraging innovation and technology across the sector.”

Many of the Ohio Valley’s Republican lawmakers attended the EPA press conference and expressed gratitude toward the agency for the ACE rule.

“I am so excited about what it will do for West Virginia and our surrounding states,” said Rep. Carol Miller, a Republican representing West Virginia’s third district. “The Affordable Clean Energy rule takes great steps in ensuring that mines will stay open by giving the power back to the states, restoring the rule of law and supporting America’s energy diversity and affordability.”

Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce told the crowd the ACE rule provides optimism to coal-producing regions.

“It provides the security that we’re going to power West Virginia and power this country with coal and natural gas,” he said.

However, industry analysts and experts have said the replacement regulation has very little chance of bringing the coal industry back across the Ohio Valley. They say the new rule does not change the larger economic trends affecting the power industry. Low natural gas prices and the rapidly falling costs for renewable energy generation are the primary challenges for coal.

ACE Analysis

The rule also does not address the challenges associated with mining thermal coal in the region: it costs more to extract coal in Appalachia, partly because the region’s coal seams have been mined for generations.

A 2018 report by West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research  predicted the recent uptick in West Virginia coal production — about 27 percent since mid-2016 driven largely by exports of metallurgical coal — will level out in the next two years.

In the agency’s own in-depth analysis of the final ACE rule, EPA predicts the amount of coal produced in the U.S. is expected to decrease across the board. In Appalachia, coal mines would produce at least 80 percent less coal in 2035 than they did in 2017.

Some utilities in the region said they do not expect to keep their coal plants running longer because of the ACE rule.

Melissa McHenry, a spokesperson for American Electric Power, which operates in 11 states including Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, said it will be several years before the impact of the ACE rule can be determined. In an email, she said AEP continues to diversify its fuel mix and invest in cleaner forms of energy, including renewables, and the company expects that the proportion of coal in its fuel mix will continue to decline.

“We don’t expect to keep our coal plants running longer due to this rule,” she stated. “The coal plants will run as long as the overall economics make sense. Ultimately, we have to continue to make the case to state utility commissions that continuing to operate these plants is in the best interest of our customers.”

A spokesperson for FirstEnergy Corp.’s Fort Martin and Harrison coal-fired power plants in West Virginia said it is “not making any immediate changes” to operations as a result of the new rule.

Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives was more optimistic about the rule’s impact. In a statement, he said the ACE rule “provides a more flexible path forward, which will minimize the cost to members and preserve the reliability of the electric grid as our co-ops work to promote a healthy environment and vibrant rural communities.”

Legal Challenge

Hours after EPA announced it had finalized the rule, some environmental groups and the New York Attorney General announced they intend to sue the agency for failing to protect both public health and the climate under the Clean Air Act.

David Doniger, a lawyer and senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program, said in the intervening years since the Clean Power Plan was announced, the energy sector has achieved emissions reductions in line with that rule, despite it never being fully implemented, solely because of market forces.

“The right thing to do would be to strengthen the Clean Power Plan and not kill it,” he said. “The right thing to do would be to take care of coal miners and coal communities in the transition to a clean energy economy. This administration isn’t do either of those things.”

West Virginia Sierra Club Conservation Committee Chair Jim Kotcon said the final ACE rule is a step backward for both the climate and for those who live near the region’s many coal-fired power plants.

“We will have a disproportionate impact of those health risks from this rule change,” he said.

He added that if EPA wanted to extend a lifeline to the coal industry, the agency should seriously invest and incentivize the use of carbon capture and sequestration technology.

“But they have not done that, and without that, I don’t believe that the current market trends for coal will get much better,” Kotcon said. “So, we’re not really saving coal-fired power plants. We’re not using this technology. We are impacting the health of our residents, and we are increasing the overall greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise have been eliminated.”

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As Appalachia Ponders Plastics Growth, Report Warns Of Threat to Climate



Photo: Courtesy PTTGCA

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

As a new plastics industry emerges in the Ohio Valley, a report by environmental groups warns that the expansion of plastics threatens the world’s ability to keep climate change at bay.

The report released Wednesday by the Center for International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, and others used publicly available emissions data and original research to measure greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire life cycle of plastics. That includes the extraction of natural gas, used as a feedstock for plastic production, to the incineration of plastic products or their final resting place in the world’s oceans.

“Ninety-nine percent of what goes into plastics is fossil fuels and their climate impacts actually start at the wellhead and the drill pad,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law and one of the authors of the report. “In light of the fact that the build-out of plastics infrastructure is ongoing and accelerating, we wanted to better understand the implications of that massive new build out of plastics infrastructure for the global climate.”

Fossil-Fueled Plastics

The report estimates production and incineration of plastic this year will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or equal to the pollution of building 189 new coal-fired power plants.

That figure will rise substantially over the next few decades as the demand for single-use plastic continues to grow, the report finds. By 2050, emissions from the entire plastics life cycle could account for as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.

Plastics manufacturers are investing millions into new petrochemical plants, including in the Ohio Valley, driven by demand and cheap natural gas from the fracking boom.

For example, the report cites Shell’s Monaca ethane cracker plant currently under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. It’s permitted to release up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution annually. Similarly, Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical is seeking permits for a cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio, across the Ohio River from West Virginia.

A cracker plant converts natural gas constituents into manufacturing products. Graphic: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The plant would be permitted to release the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of putting about 365,000 cars on the road. Muffett said that sort of increased investment in plastics manufacturing was one of the main reasons the groups decided to highlight the climate implications associated with plastics.

“This petrochemical build-out is a key driver of plastics contribution to climate impacts now and in the future,” he said. “This build-out is going to lead to the production of massive quantities of new plastics. It’s also going to lead to the incineration and disposal of massive amounts of new plastics.”

Industry Response

In a statement, the trade group the American Chemistry Council said the report missed the mark because it failed to take into account that plastics are increasingly replacing heavier, more energy-intensive materials, which can reduce emissions during both the manufacturing process and during transportation.

“Because plastics are strong and lightweight, they help us do more with less,” stated Steve Russell, vice president of the group’s plastics division. “Plastics help us ship more product with less packaging, which means fewer trucks on the road; plastics help make our vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient, so we go further on a gallon of gas; and plastic insulation and sealants help make our homes and buildings significantly more energy efficient by sealing off outdoor temperatures.”

The report also outlined a gap in emissions data for the plastics life cycle, particularly in its infancy, when natural gas is being extracted and transported to refineries and other manufacturing facilities.

“Throughout that process, there are significant emissions, and many of them remain unquantified,” Muffett said. “Even many of the sources of emissions, like compressor stations, or the miles of pipelines involved, official estimates of how many compressor stations there are can vary by an order of magnitude, and that means that there are really fundamental senses in which the data for understanding the scale of this problem just isn’t there. And it needs to be there.”

The report also called for additional research into the impacts of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans, including more study of the ways in which microplastics may be negatively impacting the ability of oceans to take up carbon emissions.

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