Clairton Coke Works, built in 1901, is the largest coke manufacturing facility in North America, producing 4.3 million tons of coke each year. The plant functions through heating coal to high temperatures, which burns off the volatiles and converts it into a pure carbon form known as coke. The byproducts of this process include oven gas, tar, ammonium sulfate, benzol, toluol and naphtha. Once the coke has been produced, it is shipped to other facilities to be used as a fuel for smelting iron and steel . The facility has been accused (and sued) by civil society organizations of committing over 6,700 air pollution violations within a three and a half year period, making it one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the Monongahela Valley and in all of Western Pennsylvania.
In 2018, the PA Department of Environmental Protection updated their Environmental Justice standards so that a population that is 20% or more at or below the poverty line, or 30% or more minority population, is designated as an Environmental Justice community . Therefore, Clairton, PA by definition is an environmental justice designated population, as 44.6% of its population are people of color, and 28% are below the poverty line. This demographic is significantly different from that of Pittsburgh, PA where 11.8% live below the poverty line and 14.7% identify as minorities .
Clairton, PA resides in Allegheny County, which is classified as a nonattainment area under the Clean Air Act, meaning that it fails to comply with the federal air emission standards for ozone, particulate matter 2.5, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. In 2017, the Liberty air quality monitor recorded the highest year-round amount of fine particles of any air monitor east of the Rocky Mountains. This pollution is associated with increased rates of ear and sinus problems, asthma, cancer, heart disease, and nervous system damage, yet the plant runs without critical pollution control . In February of 2019, an audit conducted by the EPA found that the Allegheny County Health Department was behind on 13 out of 32 permits for Title V pollution sources, with 10 permits already expired and past their year-and-a-half review period, and three never even being issued to companies within the county . This lack of compliance with permits and the added failure to update outdated equipment has led to increased emissions of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carcinogens such as benzene during normal operations.
In addition to these emissions, Clairton has faced two fires in recent years, the first of which occurred at 4:00 AM on December 24, 2018 and damaged the plant's desulfurization unit. This led to the emission of 9.3 million pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air in the months following, totaling nine times the amount emitted during a regular operating year at the plant. The second fire was a smaller electrical fire that took place on June 17, 2019—less than two weeks after repairs from the first fire were completed .
The Clairton community is “tired mentally, physically, and spiritually of the health impacts of this plant” and want Clairton Coke Works to modernize their equipment and improve their transparency for emissions, but do not necessarily wish for the plant's closure. The city's Mayor, Richard Lattanzi, is an employee of U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works located in nearby West Mifflin and therefore understands the significant risks that this coke plant poses for Clairton. However, he explains that Clairton’s population has already declined from 25,000 to 6,000 residents, and if the plant were to be shut down, they would be left with a ghost town .
In opposition of Clairton Coke Works, PennFuture began the #ToxicNeighbor Campaign on March 26, 2019. This campaign focuses on three main demands: for U.S. Steel to retire Clairton Coke Works’ oldest coke batteries, modernize the coke works using environmentally and technologically sound upgrades, and increase transparency about plant operations . In May 2019, US Steel announced the Mon Valley Project, in which the corporation planned to invest $1.5 billion in upgrading Mon Valley facilities, including Clairton Coke Works, scheduled to begin in September 2020 . US Steel initially planned to spend $400 million of this investment in 2020, but in November 2019, the corporation announced that it was lowering this expected investment to $200 million . The project was delayed in early 2020, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in October 2020, US Steel announced that they planned to spend $150 million on the project in 2021—less than what was initially planned . Concerns are growing that US Steel will abandon its investment and put the money towards a different project completely .
There have been multiple lawsuits filed against Clairton Coke Works. The first lawsuit was filed by the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project based on the accusation that the plant was operating without pollution controls. Clairton Coke Works is required under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to report hazardous releases, which they failed to do. This lawsuit was dismissed in May 2020, along with another lawsuit that would hold U.S. Steel accountable for the two fires that occurred in 2018 and 2019. Another class action lawsuit filed against U.S. Steel reached a settlement on February 25, 2020, with U.S. Steel agreeing to pay $2 million to Clairton residents affected by the plant and spend another $6.5 million on environmental improvement projects at the plant. This suit did not include health issues, so community members who faced health problems as a result of emissions from the plant still have grounds to sue . The goal of Clairton community members affected by and the environmental organizations involved in this issue hope to modernize Clairton Coke Works to mitigate the injustices that result from operating emissions and fires . Myron Arnowitt, the director of Clean Water Action in Pennsylvania, believes that "people will continue to pursue [U.S. Steel] for compensation for various kinds of harm."