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U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works in Pennsylvania, USA


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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3].

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 [4]. 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 [5]. This lack of compliance with permits and the added failure to update outdated equipment has led to increased emissions of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carcinogens such as benzene during normal operations.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 [6].

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 [4].

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 [6]. 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 [11]. 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 [12]. 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 [11]. Concerns are growing that US Steel will abandon its investment and put the money towards a different project completely [11].

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 [7]. 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 [8]. 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." 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works in Pennsylvania, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Pennsylvania
Location of conflict:Clairton
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Coal extraction and processing
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Metal refineries
Manufacturing activities
Specific commodities:Coal
Iron ore
Recycled Metals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Clairton Coke Works produces 4.3 million tons of coke annually, operating ten battery ovens. The Mon Valley air monitors exceeded the Allegheny Country daily standard for fine particle (PM 2.5) a total of 195 times between 2007 and 2018, while the monitors outside of Mon Valley only exceeded the standard 31 times during the same period. The Mon Valley air monitors exceeded the Allegheny Country hourly standard for sulfur dioxide 207 times between 2010 and 2018, and the monitors outside of Mon Valley only exceeded the standard eight times during the same period. The Allegheny County Health Department Survey 2015-2016 reported a 15% asthma rate within the entire county, with minority populations suffering the highest rates. Asthma rates were 22% for African-Americans and 20% for people with annual incomes under $25,000. In Allegheny County, 23% of residents felt that there was “a lot” of risk from air pollution. These numbers increased for African-Americans (31%) and people with incomes under $25,000/year (29%). It is difficult to obtain a total value for the people affected as air pollution travels and is dispersed due to wind and weather patterns, but Allegheny County municipalities consider 126,934 individuals within the county to be “most impacted” by Clairton Coke Works. U.S. Steel announced a $1.5 billion investment in May 2019 to improve their compliance of emission standards by 2022, but this does not represent the total level of investment since 1901 [1, 2, 9]. There are growing concerns that US Steel will not follow through with its investment, as it has already been reduced on multiple occasions, and the investment project has been delayed.

Project area:N/A
Level of Investment for the conflictive projectNot yet known
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:> 126,934
Company names or state enterprises:United States Steel Corporation from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency
Allegheny County Health Department
PA Department of Environmental Protection
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:PennFuture (
PennEnvironment (
CleanWaterAction (
CleanAirCouncil (
Environmental Integrity Project

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Neighbours/citizens/communities
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts, Global warming
Other Environmental impactsEmissions for ozone, particulate matter 2.5, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon monoxide, as well as carcinogens such as benzene.
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsAsthma and respiratory distress, sinus problems, cancer, heart disease, and nervous system damage.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsNeighbors of Clairton Coke Works are "tired mentally, physically, and spiritually of the health impacts of this plan."


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Negotiated alternative solution
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Allegheny County judge approved a settlement to resolve the class action lawsuit regarding pollution that created a "nuisance and hurt nearby property values." U.S. Steel paid $2 million to residents in the class, with about half used to pay attorney fees. U.S. Steel must also pay $6.5 million towards environmental improvement projects at the Clairton Coke Works facility: installing air coolers, and implementing battery machinery and refractory improvements. “They’re going to reduce the emissions, and hopefully improve the quality of life in the class area. But we also aren’t releasing any future claims, so that if there are continued issues in the future, people can go ahead and sue again,” said plaintiff attorney Nick Coulson, of Detroit-based law firm Liddle & Dubin, PC." [10]
Proposal and development of alternatives:N/A
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Although U.S. Steel has agreed to pay both affected residents of Clairton and put money towards making the Clairton plant more environmentally friendly, residents of Clairton and areas affected by the plant are still calling for more action and are not yet satisfied. Clairton Coke Works has yet to receive the investment that US Steel has announced towards updating and improving Mon Valley facilities, and it is unknown when this investment project will start—and how much money Mon Valley plants such as Clairton will receive. The plant also has not responded to all demands of the #ToxicNeighbor Campaign.

Sources & Materials

[1] United States Steel Corporation

[2] Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Corporation

[3] USA Demographic Data

[4] Allegheny Front

[5] PennEnvironment

[6] PennFuture

[7] Lawsuits Against U.S. Steel Resolution

[8] Lawsuits Against U.S. Steel

[9] Clean Water Action Impact Report

[10] Class action settlement delivers $2 million to residents living near Clairton Coke Works

[11] U.S. Steel's $1.5 billion investment in Mon Valley Works in Question?

[12] US Steel plans to slow investment in local upgrades, repairs.

Meta information

Contributor:Taylor Goodell, Skidmore College, [email protected]; Amity Wilson, Skidmore College, [email protected]; Andrew J. Schneller, Ph.D.; Skidmore College Environmental Studies and Sciences Program
Last update30/09/2020
Conflict ID:5193



#ToxicNeighbor Campaign

Poster advertising the #ToxicNeighbor campaign organized by PennFuture.

Clairton Coke Works Plant

Clairton Coke Works Plant

Melanie Meade, a Clairton resident

Meade says that current efforts to address U.S. Steel’s pollution from the Clairton Coke plant have had little effect on the company’s actions.