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Health Department Issues U.S. Steel New Fines Regarding 4.2-Ton Release of Toxic Anhydrous Ammonia from Clairton Coke Works, Data Issues at Edgar Thomson Facility

The Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has slapped U.S. Steel with more civil penalties – this time over the inadvertent release June 1 of about 8,449 pounds of the toxic chemical anhydrous ammonia from its Clairton Coke Works facility.

According to an Aug. 27 enforcement order posted recently to the ACHD website, the ammonia release occurred from about 11:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. when a scaffolding contractor “inadvertently opened a bleeder valve.”

County air pollution regulations require companies like U.S. Steel to report immediately (“but in no event later than 60 minutes after” the event) all equipment failures “with a substantial likelihood of causing . . . the emission into the open air of potentially toxic or hazardous materials.” Written notice of the event is also required within seven days of the event.

The Aug. 27 order addressed neither compliance issues with these requirements nor the delay between the incident and issuance of the order.

The result of the incident was a penalty of $5,500 to be paid within 30 days of the order. The company has a 30-day window to appeal, as well.

Of the fine, $2,500 was assessed as a “gravity component” and another $2,500 resulted from a “compliance history” adjustment. “The gravity-based component reflects the severity of the violation and the potential harm to the public or environment,” the order noted.

For those who might not be familiar with ammonia: The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies anhydrous ammonia as a toxic chemical. The Centers for Disease Control list the toxin as a lung-damaging agent. 

“Accidental ammonia releases cause injuries and death to employees, emergency response personnel, and people in surrounding communities,” the EPA wrote in a safety manual about the air toxic. “Anhydrous ammonia is very corrosive, and exposure to it may result in chemical-type burns to skin, eyes, and lungs.” 

This isn’t the first time ACHD has issued an enforcement order for the release of ammonia: 

On Feb. 19 the health department issued an enforcement order against U.S. Steel for the company’s failure to submit a report regarding a May 26, 2020 equipment breakdown that led to a release of about 100 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.

“We wish we could say we’re surprised, but this is what the community has come to expect from U.S. Steel,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “The company has a long track record of not only egregious air pollution episodes but also for its lack of transparency when these potentially dangerous releases occur.”

She added:

“It takes a lot of nerve for a company that increasingly – and at times aggressively – touts its commitment to both the environment and its neighbors to continue to rack up air pollution violations.”

Editor’s Note: ACHD also issued an enforcement order against U.S. Steel for data availability violations at its Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock, assessing a civil penalty of $3,200. You can read more about that here.  

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