Residents sue US Steel over air pollution in Western Pennsylvania

Clairton Coke Work

Residents who live in and around Clairton, Penn., about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh, have filed a class-action suit against US Steel, claiming air pollution from the company’s Clairton Coke Works has lowered local property values.

Not so long ago, the coke plant was seen as a source of good jobs and prosperity, but as awareness of the health effects of pollution grows, attitudes are changing. Many members of Richard Ford’s family have worked at Clairton Coke Works, including both his grandfathers, his father, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law and two uncles. These were good jobs, too, Ford says, and no one wanted to give them up or see them go away.

So, when people from nearby wealthier communities, like Mount Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, came to Clairton to talk about pollution from the mill, “we ran them out of here,” Ford says. “We said, ‘How are you going to tell us? We live here. You go to Upper St. Clair and keep living like you’re living and we’re going to stay right here,’” Ford relates. “As long as there’s smoke coming from the mills, we’re eating, we’re drinking and we’re driving good [cars]. We’re sending kids to college. We thought that was all right.”

Related: Air pollution is as unhealthy as secondhand smoke, a new study says

But while air quality has improved since Ford’s childhood, he and other members of this community who have long benefited from the good jobs are starting to wonder if the personal costs of the mill are too high.

“In my own family, my dad died of cancer of the trachea,” Ford says. “I had a daughter that died at the age of 25 with scleroderma. My son passed away this past October from prostate cancer.”

Other residents recite similar lists of family members who are sick or have died of cancers and other diseases, and Ford says they’re starting to look at the coke plant with new eyes.
“It’s an awareness now that’s just sparked in us. And we’re ready to listen now and try to do something about it because it’s so apparent to us,” he explains.

Clairton Coke Works violated its air permit 6,700 times between 2012 and 2015. The Allegheny County Health Department reached a new consent decree with US Steel to reduce pollution last year, yet the Mon Valley still does not meet federal air-quality standards for sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter. Those pollutants can cause lung problems and other health issues.

countywide survey released by the health department finds that cancer rates in Clairton are slightly higher than the county as a whole. But the plant’s emissions blow toward Braddock, a small community with its own US Steel facility. Cancer rates there are double the rest of the county.

But can Clairton and other communities in the path of plant’s emissions prove that their health problems are caused by US Steel’s coke plant? According to Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health at the Allegheny County Health Department, “that’s exceptionally difficult to do.”

There are so many reasons people get cancer, especially in low-income areas, he says. “You have high smoking rates. You’ve got old housing stock, with lots of asbestos — lung cancer right there. You have low education. You have high unemployment. You have high obesity rates. All of these things are correlated with [increased cancer rates],” he explains.

Researchers around Pittsburgh are trying to tease out the role air pollution plays in cancers and other diseases. One new study finds that underprivileged children in Clairton and other Allegheny County communities near smokestacks are twice as likely as other children in the region to have asthma. Clairton’s kids are three times more likely to have asthma than kids nationwide.

The fight to reduce air pollution has created tension within the local community. “It’s one of two ways,” says resident Shannon Dougherty. “People either feel like I do or they look at people like me, like, ‘You’re trying to take our jobs.’ And that’s not the case at all. No one wants to take away anyone’s jobs. All we want is for US Steel to abide by regulations.”

The local steelworkers union says they are not concerned about Clairton Coke Works closing down. In fact, the plant is currently hiring.

The Allegheny County Health Department says they’re working on a plan for the Mon Valley to meet Clean Air Act requirements by October. If the region doesn’t meet those standards within a year, the federal government will take over.

US Steel did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

This article is based on a report by Julie Grant of the program Allegheny Front. The report aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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