Clean air advocates announce intention to sue US Steel

US Steel's failure to report releases of thousands of pounds of hazardous pollutants from three plants over more than 100 days starting in December of last year has prompted clean air advocates to notify the stateside steelmaker of their intention to sue.

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), the Breathe Project, and the Clean Air Council have sent the notice to US Steel and federal, state, and local agencies for pollution released by US Steel’s Clairton Plant and related facilities.

A fire broke out on Christmas Eve 2018 at the Clairton Plant, which produces coke for steelmaking. The fire damaged and shut down two key control systems, which remove hazardous pollutants from coke oven gas.

US Steel continued operating for more than three months without these controls, releasing 'thousands of pounds of hazardous pollutants every day into the air, including benzene, which can cause cancer, and hydrogen sulfide, which can trigger asthma attacks and even death at high concentrations', according to an announcement released by the Washington DC-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

According to the EIP, Federal law requires that companies immediately report unpermitted releases of hazardous pollutants to the National Response Centre, which notifies state and local agencies and makes such reports available to the public."Even though US Steel released hazardous substances for over 100 days, and was required to report each day, the company has yet to report them to the National Response Centre," claims the EIP.

“It is critically important that communities living downwind from major pollution sources have full information of the health and environmental hazards they face,” said Adam Kron, senior attorney for the EIP. “US Steel failed to make even a single call to the National Response Centre during its months of hazardous releases, depriving residents of the information they need to protect themselves.”

Today's legal notice was the latest in a series of legal actions relating to US Steel’s Mon Valley Works, including its Clairton Plant. PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council filed a lawsuit against the company in federal court on 29 April over alleged air permit violations. A class action lawsuit over health impacts was filed in state court on 9 April.

Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel for the Clean Air Council, commented: “The release reporting requirements are a fundamental aspect of environmental law. When they are ignored, the lack of notification can exacerbate serious pollution problems. The company must improve its emergency response procedures to ensure that this does not happen again,” he said.

The EIP claims that each failure to report is a violation of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (or CERCLA), carrying a potential penalty of over $55,000 per violation. Across the three plants involved, US Steel could face a penalty of over $50 million for its failure to report its releases of hazardous substances between Christmas Eve and early April 2019.

“The act of omitting to report large quantities of emissions has potential detrimental consequences to the health of residents of Allegheny County and Southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project.  “The company and the regulator should both know better and will need to do better in the future.”

For several months in 2019, the Liberty/Clairton area has had some of the poorest air quality in the US, according to the EPA’s AirNow website. On several occasions, including dates after US Steel claimed to have brought its control equipment back online, the Liberty/Clairton area’s air quality ranked worst in the US, claims the EIP.

The EIP has stated that the amount of pollution emitted by the plants 'appeared to grow significantly since December', and claims that the Allegheny County Health Department reported that on 29 January this year (more than a month after the fire), that the three facilities released 74,100 pounds of sulfur dioxide—at least 35 times the facilities’ daily total release before the fire, according to the groups’ legal notice. "The company has yet to publicly disclose emissions of hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and other hazardous substances," said EIP.

Disclosures that companies make under CERCLA are supposed to estimate the specific quantity of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, coke oven gas, and other pollutants that are released above certain thresholds for each day these releases continue.

On 4 April 2019, US Steel announced that it brought the control rooms back online, though monitoring data has shown pollutant spikes since then, claims the EIP.

The notice filed today means that the groups plan to file a lawsuit in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania within 60 days, unless US Steel corrects its violations before then.