The Pittsburgh Foundation

Statement on public health response to coke works fire

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 24, 2019 – The following statement is issued by Pittsburgh Foundation President and CEO Maxwell King in support of Allegheny County Health Department staff’s increased monitoring and enforcement action against air polluters in the region:

“The Dec. 24 fire at U.S. Steel Corp.’s Clairton Coke works that resulted in gas pollution emissions across 22 Mon Valley communities is terrible on many levels, the most serious of these being the threat to long-term health of tens of thousands of residents. As one among many in the region living with asthma, I am acutely aware of the added danger to those with chronic respiratory conditions and other medical issues.

While this latest pollution was caused by the fire, the coke works and U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works have been repeated violators of pollution standards through regular operations. That dismal track record has jeopardized human health, the Mon Valley’s economic development efforts and the quality-of-life reputation for the entire region.

Some have accused Health Department officials – unfairly, I believe – of delayed and understated warnings to the public about the pollution dangers from the fire. I believe they acted in the interest of public safety by posting a notice of potential air quality problems the day after the fire on the Department’s Facebook page, and then followed with a formal advisory Jan. 9 after excessive emissions had been detected. In response to complaints about the timing, officials have committed to increased public reporting with daily updates on the Department’s Facebook page and website.

It is crucial to see this issue in the light of the County’s recent proactive stand regarding air pollution issues and U.S. Steel.

I want to point out that the Department has repeatedly acted against pollution violations, issuing fines totaling more than $4 million. And last year, the Department took some of its strongest enforcement action, fining U.S. Steel more than $1.6 million for violations that occurred outside a 2016 consent order that was supposed to ensure air quality compliance. Also in response to those violations, officials are threatening to order hot idling of two batteries in the coke works operations if air quality standards are not met. As company attorneys have moved to fight these actions, county officials have strongly defended them in legal proceedings and in public communications.

The Health Department’s anti-pollution enforcement powers are bound within a complex legal framework that includes state and federal authority. But I believe there is unprecedented determination to use the law and public communications to win the battle against air pollution. County officials have been working hard to be part of the answer to these issues, and any failure to acknowledge that risks the hope of making real progress.”  


Doug Root