Air quality concerns raised by group, citizens following outage at Clairton Coke Works

CLAIRTON, Pa. — An air quality advocacy group is raising concerns over a power outage at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works plant reported on Monday.

The outage was reported around 5:30 a.m., according to the Allegheny County Health Department, and “required the flaring of coke oven gases from the stacks and batteries.” Power was restored later in the day.

In a statement on Monday, ACHD reported that “area monitors have not indicated any adverse conditions since the event and it is believed that the power outage will either not affect or only minimally affect plant emission.” The case remained the same on Tuesday, according to an updated statement.

A spokesperson for U.S. Steel corroborated that, stating, “Flaring gas was necessary and required by our permit to prevent raw coke oven emissions from being vented into the atmosphere. There have been no recorded exceedances at area ambient monitors.”

Residents, however, believe their health was adversely impacted.

Debbie Gecan told Channel 11 she spent Independence Day with a migraine.

“You could smell it. It comes up here, and the odor is very bad, like rotten eggs,” she said. “I had to close all my windows. It was horrible.”

Other residents apparently reported feeling unwell to officials with the Breathe Project, which sent us this video of the flaring gas.

“If Hollywood were looking to shoot a scene entitled ‘Sunrise Over Mordor,’ they would have trouble replicating the horror depicted during sunrise over Clairton today, July 4, 2022, Independence Day,” said Matthew Mehalik, Executive Director.

Mehalik told Channel 11 that the Mon Valley’s airshed on Monday “peaked out at the No. 2 worst airshed in the country around 10:30 a.m.”

And yet levels were indeed beneath the legal threshold in which a violation is triggered. Mehalik believes that needs to change.

“What people need to know is those legal thresholds are based off of standards that were set over a decade ago, and there is ample evidence there are harms that occur at levels below that threshold,” he said. “We find it concerning that a public health entity would not be issuing an alarm.”

According to the county: “for the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) 24-hour standard, yesterday’s Air Quality Index (AQI) was moderate, between 60-84 for all monitors. Ozone was good to moderate, between 50-67 for all monitors. There is no indication we experienced ‘dangerous and unhealthy levels of pollution’, which would be an AQI above 151 for the 24-hour standard.”

Mehalik, however, said the AQI was “in excess of 130″ during the peak 10:30 a.m. time.

Gecan, meanwhile, told us she felt better on Tuesday and has learned to live with the plant’s emissions.

“I’m tired of it, but I grew up with this mill. My dad worked there. My brother worked there. ... I’ve lived here over 64 years,” she said. “You have to put up with it or move. There’s nothing you can do. We can’t shut the mill down. We shut the mill down, we’re gonna be a ghost town. We’re already half ghost town.”

The outage comes not long after U.S. Steel paid millions of dollars in fines related to alleged violations. The company has appealed in the past.

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