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Residents to Allegheny County Health Department: Better Protect Us With Strong Coke Oven Regs

Editor’s Note: The public comment period for Allegheny County’s coke oven regulations closed as of 4 p.m. Jan. 21.

Residents talked about having to shut their windows on nice days to keep out noxious odors emanating from the Clairton Coke Works. They spoke about asthma attacks, about suffering itchy eyes and throats, about dust that cakes their windows and kills their outdoor plants.

Some talked about fears that persistent poor air quality would ultimately force them to uproot their families in search of a healthier environment. Others noted that even if they wanted to – needed to move – some simply do not have the resources to do so.

They told ACHD stories about being afraid to let their pets outside. About keeping their children indoors on days when pollution levels skyrocketed. They asked, “Do your children have to worry about going outside to play?”

They begged health officials in three hours of testimony: Please do more to protect us from Clairton Coke Works emissions.

GASP and fellow environmental groups joined those residents at a virtual public hearing Wednesday evening to testify about draft revisions to Allegheny County’s coke oven regulations in an effort to send the message to ACHD that the public is relying on them to ensure the regulations are as strong as possible.

Intended to reduce certain air pollutants from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and clarify inspection procedures, the draft revisions were the topic of nearly three hours of testimony from residents, environmental leaders, and U.S. Steel loyalists. The meeting was held remotely and streamed live on the Allegheny County Health Department’s Facebook page.

You can read all about the draft revisions on our recent blog. Here’s testimony presented Wednesday by GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini:

Good evening. I’m Rachel Filippini, the director of GASP. These verbal remarks are in addition to the more extensive and technical comments we will be submitting tomorrow.

For years now, we have implored the ACHD to do more to control emissions coming from the Clairton Coke Works that cause malodors and are linked to asthma, heart attacks, cancer, and myriad other health problems.

We know, for instance, that emissions from the Clairton Plant regularly contribute to exceedances of Allegheny County’s ambient air quality standard for Hydrogen Sulfide. The Clairton Plant is the largest emitter of hydrogen sulfide in Allegheny County. PA DEP Air Emissions reporting shows Clairton Coke Works emitted about 156 tons of H2S in 2019. For some perspective, all other sources of H2S in PA combined only emitted 59 tons.

Over the past several weeks we have worked to assist community members in submitting their own comments. From those comments, we heard from people who fear going outside without a mask – not just because of the pandemic, but because of the seemingly ever-present emissions and malodors from the Clairton Coke Works.

We heard gut-wrenching stories about community members having to rush their asthmatic children to the ER on days when air quality was particularly poor. We heard others lament that while they love the city of Pittsburgh, they may need to uproot their families because of the abysmal air quality, and how it impacts their day-to-day lives.

With these regulations, ACHD can potentially make a positive impact on our local air quality and those who breathe it. Are these revisions everything we’d hoped for? Absolutely not. Do we support the health department’s efforts to reduce hydrogen sulfide and other coke oven emissions? Absolutely. What follows are some of our concerns:

The department says these revisions are necessary to incorporate a number of existing state and federal standards relating to coke oven emissions in Article XXI. However, they are already incorporated by reference and thus the department has had, for a long time, the ability to enforce these standards.

The “new” limits on fugitive emissions are, in fact, existing limits so any air quality improvements from them will depend on increased enforcement and compliance.  A regulation is only as good as the enforcement of it.

To the extent ACHD wants to incorporate applicable state and federal rules, it must incorporate all such rules for the sake of clarity. In their current form, the new rules do not incorporate:

● A federal limit on the total dissolved solid content of quench water (no more than 1,100 mg/L); nor
● Federal limits on fugitive emissions that are based on rolling 30-day averages of observed emissions rather than instantaneous observations.

Additionally, ACHD should demonstrate that the limits on emissions of particulate matter from coke oven battery combustion stacks, leaking doors, leaking topside port lids, leaking offtake systems, and visible emissions per charge are at least as stringent as the federal regulations.

The proposed limit on the sulfur content of coke oven gas is likely to help reduce the concentration of several pollutants in the ambient air. Unfortunately, while this limit may be technically feasible for U.S. Steel to achieve, ACHD has not demonstrated that it is the case.

ACHD should provide a demonstration showing what, if any, reduction of concentrations of H2S in the ambient air near the Clairton Plant generally, and at the Liberty monitor specifically, will occur once the proposed revisions take effect.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments.

While the public hearing may be over, the public comment period is not. If you haven’t yet weighed in on the revised coke oven regulations, here’s a sample message to use in its entirety or as a guide. Fill out our form below to have your comments routed directly to ACHD:

While hopeful the revisions will help stem fugitive emissions from coke ovens and H2S exceedances I am concerned there’s no guarantee the proposed changes will lead to cleaner air in the Mon Valley. ACHD must continue to do all it can to protect the health of residents impacted by decades of poor air quality. The public deserves to know that these updates will improve air quality.

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0 Comments

  1. Patrick Thornton says:

    Can I get a copy of all respondent’s comments?

    1. Amanda Gillooly says:

      Good morning! You can, but you would need to file a Right to Know request with the Allegheny County Health Department. Here’s the link to do that: https://mygovhelp.us/ALLEGHENYCOUNTYPA/_rs/(S(zdx4k1asfvirtx4jqqjag3u2))/supporthome.aspx

      Or you can wait until the health department releases its comment response document, which includes a summary of the various responses (this way, you don’t have to sift through a bunch of duplicate comments).

      Hope that helps! If we can be of further assistance with the RTK request or can other wise be of help, please don’t hesitate to email me at amanda@gasp-pgh.org.

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