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Let’s Cut Through the Noise & Talk About U.S. Steel’s Decision Not to Invest In The Mon Valley Works

By now you’ve probably heard the latest chapter in what’s become a kind of bad romance between the Pittsburgh area and one of its most egregious air polluters: U.S. Steel. Last week the company announced that it was reneging on its 2019 promise to invest about $1.5 billion into its Mon Valley Works facilities. 

In an “Open Letter to our Pittsburgh Family” company President and Chief Executive Officer David B. Burritt wrote:

“U. S. Steel is setting aside this project as we step forward to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. In this world – a world that still needs steel – we need to find aggressive decarbonization solutions. The project we had planned in 2019 would have decreased our carbon footprint, but we must now move farther and faster. Just as steel transformed the world, the world is now transforming steel.”

After playing the blame game and bemoaning what the company deemed as permit delays by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), Burritt acknowledged that those scheduling setbacks, “allowed for a consequential window of time during which we expanded our understanding of steelmaking’s future in a rapidly decarbonizing world.”

To that end, U.S. Steel also announced that it would be permanently idling Batteries 1, 2, and 3- considered three of its dirtiest, most-polluting batteries –  at its Clairton Coke Works facility by 2023. If that’s true, air quality in the Mon Valley should improve.

Did you notice the qualifier we threw in there? “If that’s true.” 

Because we really don’t know, do we? In fiction and reality, bad romances are marked by a lack of trust and transparency, and the one between U.S. Steel and Allegheny County is really no different. Over the years – decades, even – U.S. Steel has broken too many promises for any of us to take the company at its word. Especially when it comes to air quality.

Let’s not forget: U.S. Steel is not, and never was a poster child for air quality compliance, despite the company’s claims about being a responsible environmental steward. We can say that speaking from over 50 years of personal experience fighting U.S. Steel over its ongoing emissions issues.

We’re not the only ones fighting with the steel-making giant. While some industries struggle with compliance from time to time, ACHD, EPA, and US Steel have been engaged in court battles or settlement negotiations continually for the past 48 years.  Major settlements with US Steel occurred in 1979, 1993, 2007, 2008, 2014, and 2016. In fact, after the 2016 judgment, ACHD said emissions from the plant actually got worse.

Right this very minute, U.S. Steel is the subject of a joint enforcement order from the EPA and ACHD for air pollution problems at its Edgar Thomson plant. Just last month the company was issued a Notice of Violation for exceedances of the state hydrogen sulfide standard at its Clairton Coke Works. And that’s to say nothing of the high-profile 2018 fire at the Clairton Coke Works that knocked out pollution control devices for 100 days, or the recent University of Pittsburgh study showing that the ensuing air pollution sickened local residents, exacerbating asthma symptoms. 

Meanwhile, local and regional leaders spent the past few days finger-pointing and asking, “What went wrong?” Some pointed the finger at regulators. Some placed the blame squarely on “extreme” environmental groups (yes, GASP was called out by name).

At GASP, we don’t know and won’t speculate about what led to U.S. Steel’s decision to pull the plug on the billion-dollar Mon Valley Works upgrade. We don’t know the timeline for the shutdowns of Batteries 1, 2, and 3. We don’t know how many jobs might be affected or what the company’s ultimate plan is for steel production in the Mon Valley.

This is what we do know: If it’s “extreme” environmentalism to work to ensure the public has healthy air to breathe and that U.S. Steel and other polluters are held accountable for their role in causing health and quality-of-life issues for residents  – if it’s “extreme” environmentalism to promote transparency, public involvement and commenting on air quality permits and regulations, then we guess we’re OK with the moniker. 

“It is never extreme to think people have a right to breathe clean, healthy air that doesn’t cause asthma, heart attacks, lung cancer, and other health problems. Or to think that polluting industries should meet basic permit parameters and follow local, state, and federal rules and regulations,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “What’s extreme is U.S. Steel’s track record. U.S. Steel has steamrolled the community, their employees, the health department, and most local officials for years, all while saying that they’re part of the Pittsburgh ‘family.’” 

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