The Clean Water Blog

CCW Fire Fallout

In the predawn hours of Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018, early rising residents of the Monongahela Valley southeast of Pittsburgh might have thought they were getting surprised by an early sunrise, but the reality was just as surprising and much more dangerous. A massive fire at the Clairton Coke Works (CCW) painted the sky red and orange as on site first responders and steelworkers heroically battled a blaze that stretched the size of a football field.  In the end the fire was contained but at the cost of vital pollution control equipment that CCW uses to desulphurize their coke oven gas.

The CCW is the flagship metallurgical coke production facility for US Steel. It is the largest of its 3 plants in the Mon Valley works and the largest coke production operation in North America.  Metallurgical coke is essentially hyper-cooked coal that has all the impurities burned off and the leftover product is a condensed and pure fuel for heating steel furnaces. The process of creating coke creates several byproducts that are either captured and sold or emitted into the surrounding communities. Among these byproducts are hydrogen sulfides (H2S), particulate matter, sulphurdioxide (SO2) and benzene, a thoroughly studied and documented carcinogen. Coke production is an integral part of steel making but is also one of the dirtiest heavy industry processes on the planet.

US Steel has a history of massive pollution in the Monongahela Valley long before this fire. It has received numerous fines totaling millions of dollars. Its facilities have been under 8 consent decrees with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) since 1990 as the Department has tried to reign in the pollution coming from this operation.

Many residents of the Monongahela Valley have deep identities associated with steelmaking. This industry created middle class jobs for working class families. For a long time, Clairton, the city where the CCW is located, was a cultural cornerstone of the Monongahela Valley with a bustling main street, numerous African American owned and operated businesses. Several nationally and internationally renowned jazz musicians called it home.

This is not the case anymore. The CCW is a relic of a bygone era. Batteries 1, 2, and 3 at the facility were constructed in the 1950s. US Steel promised to replace them more than a decade ago but broke that promise after the financial crisis in 2008. While the facility provides stable, union jobs, the fact of the matter is that the valley is struggling, people are facing asthma rates 3-4 times the national average and the pollution exacerbates many public health issues residents are facing. The valley needs a new vision for its future and business partners whose actions won’t continue to hold it back.

We are already extremely behind in our fight against climate change and if Allegheny County wants any hope of thriving over the next century, we need a thorough and equitable plan that transitions out of these archaic and dirty modes of manufacturing and look for new ways to incorporate the working class and union jobs into a new green economy. Clean Water Action has been pushing for solutions that directly addresses residents’ health concerns and lifts the burden of pollution off communities; providing resources which will allow local residents to advocate better for themselves and their community, incorporating county leadership into the accountability process with US Steel, and encouraging ACHD to take a proactive approach to this issue by shutting down outdated and poorly performing coke oven batteries at the facility.

For the first time in decades our elected officials are finally demonstrating support to address pollution from the CCW. On February 7th, State Representative Austin Davis and State Senator Jay Costa convened a policy hearing at the Clairton Municipal Building to investigate what steps could be taken to improve air quality, community notification procedures and emergency response plans. The packed hearing featured testimonies from representatives of US Steel, ACHD, unions and environmental organizations. Legislators also challenged US Steel during the hearing to improve their operations and have their actions emulate their words.

The hearing also helped lead to new a new enforcement action against US Steel, issued by ACHD. The action requires several steps to reduce emissions.  This action is more stringent than previous enforcements. Among other stipulations, ACHD notes that is emissions are not controlled within 30 days, US Steel must place the CCW on hot idle as many residents have been demanding.

Hot idle is a process by which coke ovens are kept warm (once they are completely shut off it can be dangerous and difficult to start production again) but no coal is pushed through the oven. US Steel maintains that hot idle would endanger workers and make pollution worse for the Mon Valley. This is an interesting position because they intentionally hot idled when steel prices were low during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Ensuring accountability continues will not be easy. The social mechanisms that allow a multinational corporation to hold the public health of a region hostage won’t be dismantled overnight. History requires us to provide an alternative vision for the future in order to stoke hope that will spread into prosperity throughout the region. This work is only possible when residents band together with stakeholders to challenge companies who have bound and gagged our public health in the pursuit of profits and global influence and identify the needs and desires of the valley truly are.