U.S. Steel announced Friday that instead of investing $1 billion in emission controls upgrades, it is planning to shut down three coke batteries at the Clairton Coke Works. It’s a move that local experts and advocates say could substantially reduce pollution in the Mon Valley and upend the region’s economic and environmental status quo.

“Today is a difficult day,” U.S. Steel CEO Dave Burritt wrote in “An Open Letter to our Pittsburgh Family.”

The now scrapped plan to modernize its Mon Valley facilities included plans for a casting and rolling facility and cogeneration power plant. In addition to improving their production process, U.S. Steel had said these investments would have reduced pollution.

In its announcement U.S. Steel put the blame for its decision on the need to reduce its carbon emissions to address climate change. But some local union leaders blamed local politicians for not supporting the company enough, while several environmental groups blamed the company for abandoning its investments entirely rather than investing in cleaner production.

Pollution from the coke works has been one of the most volatile political issues in the region, as environmentalists, regulators and politicians continually spar over how aggressively to try to bring emissions under control. The typical debate is about how to balance the health impacts, since nearby residents have unusually high asthma rates, with the potential impact on jobs and U.S. Steel profits. 

That debate continued on Friday.

“Permanently closing the three worst-polluting coke batteries at U.S. Steel’s Clairton plant will come as a huge breath of fresh air to residents in the Mon Valley and across the region,” Zach Barber, a clean air advocate for PennEnvironment, said in a Friday press release.

“This is devastating,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said in a statement. “We had the opportunity to make some of the greenest steel in the world right here in Braddock and secure the future of thousands of good paying union jobs.”

Burritt said in his letter that the company’s decision was tied to a construction delay brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the onset of the pandemic, U.S. Steel agreed with the need for the [Allegheny] County Health Department [ACHD] to temporarily delay its permitting process for the Mon Valley Works, but this delay allowed for a consequential window of time during which we expanded our understanding of steelmaking’s future in a rapidly decarbonizing world,” he wrote.

The health department was disappointed that U.S. Steel mentioned the permitting process as a reason to pull its investments. “Certainly, COVID-19 had an impact on how all organizations operated. Neither the ACHD nor US Steel were an exception. But I can verify that we continued to work proactively to move this project along,” the health department statement said.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said U.S. Steel had not reached out to him or anyone at the health department about its permits for the anticipated investment, and the announcement about the scrapped upgrade Friday caught him by surprise. “This is very disappointing,” he said. “This is a project I was very supportive of.”

How much cleaner will the air get?

The pollution from the coke works is the main reason that the Pittsburgh region continues to receive “F” grades from the American Lung Association, since the grades are based on the region’s worst air quality monitor. Up until this year, the Mon Valley region had been in violation of federal clean air standards. 

In U.S. Steel’s statement, Burritt wrote that the three coke ovens represent 17% of the facility’s production and that permanently idling them would “further improve environmental performance.” Environmental groups described the three batteries as “the dirtiest” at the coke works.

If those emission reductions from the plant led directly to air quality improvements, the improvements would be dramatic, on par with the impact of reductions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. A 17% improvement in air quality would leave the Mon Valley with a pollution level similar to that in Lawrenceville and better than the air quality in North Braddock, Wilkinsburg near the Parkway East and the Neville Island area.

Mryon Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, wrote in a statement that he believed the changes could reduce emissions from the plant by up to 20%.  But he said the ambient air quality would be “significant” but less than 20%. 

Matthew Mehalik, the executive director at the Breathe Project, said it’s too soon to predict how healthy the air will be. U.S. Steel has taken batteries offline in the past, he said, and there still have been bad air days. “If the company were transparent about its operations we might be able to quantify the improvement but we don’t have that information and can’t say for certain how much that will improve,” he said.

Over the past year, the coke works took one battery offline for at least part of the year, according to the Allegheny County Health Department. This contributed to Mon Valley residents breathing the cleanest air they had ever breathed, a dramatic improvement that wasn’t anticipated before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The three batteries will be idled by the first quarter of 2023, according to U.S. Steel. “While the permanent idling of those three dirtiest batteries will be beneficial for air quality in the Mon Valley, waiting for another 1.5 years for that to happen will continue to add pollution in the Mon Valley and Allegheny County,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the nonprofit Group Against Smog and Pollution.

“While we are pleased by this development, we still must remain vigilant — especially in light of U.S. Steel’s decades-long history of legal violations and broken promises,” Barber said in his statement.

In a statement to PublicSource, a spokesperson for the health department wrote: “We anticipate that shutting down the batteries will significantly improve air quality in the Mon Valley. We will continue to work with US Steel, advocacy groups and local residents to further improve air quality.”

Fitzgerald said he wasn’t an expert on the coke works but said the Mon Valley was already in compliance with federal air standards and “anything that would utilize the better batteries and not utilize the batteries that have air issues, would be a positive for this region.”

Will the region lose jobs?

In Fitzgerald’s view, today’s announcement doesn’t mean a loss of current jobs, but it signals a loss of jobs in the future. 

State Rep. Austin Davis said today’s announcement would hurt the Mon Valley’s economy. “I am deeply disappointed that the company has broken its promise to the Mon Valley and its own workers by scrapping a plan that would have made the Mon Valley Works the first project of its kind, provided cleaner air for our community and good jobs that would have helped this area prosper for decades,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, some labor leaders blamed a lack of support from local leaders for U.S. Steel’s decision. “The lack of support, and frankly open hostility from some elected officials means the loss of four-million construction man hours, approximately 1,000 full time union construction jobs and threatens in the longer term 3,000 steel workers,” Tom Melcher, business manager for the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council, said in a statement.

Fitzgerald, who spoke at the U.S. Steel announcement of the upgrades two years ago, challenged the characterization from some unions that local politicians were to blame. While there might have been a few vocal opponents, he said that he and most of the politicians who represent the Mon Valley in Harrisburg and in Washington D.C., expressed support for U.S. Steel’s project. 

Environmental groups, meanwhile, are calling out U.S. Steel for backing away from the region, rather than investing in cleaner solutions that would retain jobs.

“Will the disillusionment of residents in these communities be felt in the same manner by those elected officials and other champions who heralded U.S. Steel’s announcement in May 2019?” PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo, said in a statement. “U.S. Steel is a toxic neighbor to these communities, and with this deflating announcement stands to poison its human relationships in the same manner it poisons our air.”

Mehalik said U.S. Steel had shifted production to a nonunion plant in Arkansas. Blaming climate change for U.S. Steel’s decision was a red herring, he said. “Just closing things that are old that need to be closed anyhow because they are old and leaking and blaming it on climate change is just cynical.”

The Pittsburgh Works, a coalition of labor and business leaders, blamed the Allegheny County Health Department for proposing additional environmental regulations on U.S. Steel.

“Along with a constant drumbeat of opposition from so-called environmental groups, the broad failure of local officials to rally around this massive reinvestment in the last of steelmaking in the Mon Valley reinforces the perception that the region and Pennsylvania are openly hostile to job-creators,” Jeff Nobers, executive director of Pittsburgh Works, wrote in a statement.

Chris Briem, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, said U.S. Steel’s announcement likely means there will be reduced steel production in the long run. And in addition to the immediate economic impact, it could have a symbolic impact on the region’s economy. 

“Obviously the legacy of the region is steel production,” Briem said. “The Clairton Works goes back a century, to the beginning of modern steel production, and defined the region for more than a century and it matters symbolically as well.”

Burritt wrote that U.S. Steel wasn’t abandoning the Mon Valley, even as it scaled back plans. “The Mon Valley Works has been a pillar of U. S. Steel and will continue to supply key customers in strategic markets, including appliance and construction,” he wrote.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison

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Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for...