CLAIRTON, Pennsylvania — Here in the steep hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, politicians are struggling to weigh the lives of sick children and elderly people against desperately needed jobs. And mostly, they're choosing the jobs.
Ever since a factory fire in late December, pollution alerts have steadily gone out to communities near two US Steel plants — one that bakes coal in massive, 2,000-degree ovens, and another that flares sulfur-laden gas day and night from a nearby hillside. Steam clouds loft from the smokestacks there in a valley where the asthma rates are nearly triple the national average.
Many towns are facing public health consequences of fossil fuels. But Clairton’s pollution crisis has unique political stakes — pitting the behemoth US Steel, a chief beneficiary of President Trump’s steel tariffs, against environmentalists and local health officials. In this part of the country, politicians of both parties know that the way to win elections is to win the steel and coal workers. That means that Republicans — and even some big-name Democrats — seem unwilling to do much about the long-running pollution problem, which is disproportionately hitting young and elderly people, particularly in black communities.
Take Doreen Johnson, 61, who’s lived in or near Clairton her entire life. Every weekday morning, she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. so she can drive to her daughter’s house and help get her grandkids off to school. Her daughter needs to catch a 6 a.m. bus to get to work in Pittsburgh, about 15 miles away, and can’t stay with the kids.
Before heading out the door, Johnson always looks at her phone to check the air quality outside. Allegheny County, where this faded town is perched on a hillside above the Monongahela River, has some of the dirtiest air in the US.
Four of her five grandchildren have asthma. She particularly worries about her oldest granddaughter, who at 12 years old needs both an inhaler and a nebulizer. “When she wakes up in the morning, you can hear her wheezing,” Johnson told BuzzFeed News. “It’s terrible.”
But that’s not so unusual in Clairton, where the childhood asthma rate is above 22%, more than twice the state average and nearly three times the national average. The town’s air quality has for years fallen below EPA safety standards for sulfur and fine particulate soot, both linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Johnson herself has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that attacks the lungs and lymph nodes, and carries a plastic bag filled with medicine bottles everywhere she goes. “I haven’t been feeling well at all since this has started,” she said.
She’s talking about the Christmas Eve fire at the Clairton Coking Facility, the plant owned by US Steel that turns coal into coke, a kind of charcoal that fuels the blast furnaces that make steel. The mammoth plant has long been a hotbed of pollution, but the fire made it dramatically worse, spewing outbursts of air pollution that have recurred for months over this town of 6,600 and 22 other small towns nearby.
“That area is one of the areas with the highest air pollution in the entire country,” atmospheric pollution expert Albert Presto of Carnegie Mellon University told BuzzFeed News. “This fire has contributed to it being even worse.”
And yet, few people in power are willing to do anything about it. As US Steel racks up pollution violations, the most high-profile young politician in the Keystone State, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has stood in front of the Clairton plant backed by hard-hatted union workers to voice support for keeping it running — and exceeding pollution limits — while it is repaired.
With both state and federal regulators absent, environmental groups intend to file a lawsuit against US Steel. And the Allegheny County Health Department has imposed heavy fines and called for shuttering leaking ovens — unprecedented tactics to keep the $14 billion company in check. “Not only were they violating the standards, they were grossly violating the standards,” ACHD Deputy Director Jim Kelly told BuzzFeed News.
Just last week, the ACHD fined US Steel $700,000 for continued pollution from its three Mon Valley factories. That was in addition to two fines last year before the fire: a $600,000 fine in October, and a $1 million fine last summer — the largest penalty the county has ever assessed on the company over decades of regulation.
US Steel has appealed the June and October fines, claiming in December that fixes could cost $400 million, and calling the penalties “arbitrary and capricious.” This was all before the Christmas Eve fire, which wiped out sulfur pollution controls there. Since then, the company has continued running the coke works, even with pollution controls knocked out, leaving many residents and progressive local politicians pessimistic that their air — in the top 2% for cancer risk from air pollution nationwide — will ever get better.
“This is a classic David vs. Goliath battle,” Democratic state Rep. Austin Davis, who represents Clairton, told BuzzFeed News. “They are a county agency fighting with a multinational corporation with every lawyer in town on retainer.”
“I had asthma as a kid. I still have a little today — I’m sure it’s from growing up in an industrial zone,” Davis said. “We want US Steel to succeed, we want the jobs. But we also want, moving forward, for the pollution to stop. We think we can have both.”
In the early morning on Christmas Eve, around 4:15 a.m., a worker at US Steel’s Clairton Coking Facility, just down the hill from Clairton, was running a few minutes late to inspect the plant’s No. 2 Control Room.
“If he had been on time, he probably would have died in the fire,” said Don Furko, president of Steelworkers Local 1557 in Clairton, which represents about 1,200 workers at the plant.
Coke making is a hot and dirty business: At the plant, coal is baked in 10 metal “batteries” to around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, distilling chemicals such as benzene and toluene, 35 tons of sulfur, and 145,000 gallons of crude coal tar every day. It also releases 215 million cubic feet a day of “coke gas,” a mixture of hydrogen, methane, and other contaminants, some of which is normally burned to heat the batteries.
On Christmas Eve, it got even hotter than normal. An inferno had started in the Number 2 Control Room, a football field–sized building filled with equipment used to filter coke oven gases, most notably sulfur dioxide emissions. Early news reports said the fire had been contained, but in reality, the blaze had destroyed much of the equipment and its roof. The fire burned for five hours.
US Steel filed a short accident report, but kept the plant running despite health department pollution monitors recording sulfur dioxide levels topping federal safety standards. The company filed a Jan. 7 repair plan detailing how US Steel was extending the coke oven baking times in order to dilute the sulfur released from the plant. It also started burning excess coke gas from hilltop flares at a downriver plant in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, “for better dispersion” of the sulfur-laden gas. The flares burn all day and light up the sky around the valley at night. Right now the company is flaring more than 60% of the coke gas at its three plants that would typically be burned instead.
Despite the flares, monitors kept recording excessive sulfur readings (“exceedances” in legal jargon), and on Jan. 9, the ACHD released a warning telling the young, elderly, and people with health conditions in the county “to limit outdoor activities until further notice.” The warning noted six violations of federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide in the weeks since the fire.
On the health agency’s Facebook page, residents reacted angrily to the first public warning coming so late.
They weren’t the only ones surprised. The mayor of Clairton and the city council weren’t informed about the problem until Jan. 8, Mayor Richard Lattanzi told BuzzFeed News by email.
But Allegheny Hospital pediatrician Deborah Gentile, a respiratory disease expert who runs mobile asthma treatment clinics for children in the region, had already figured out something was wrong. In the first part of the school year, she had treated severe cases of asthma in 15 children at Clairton Elementary School. Two weeks after the fire, she returned to the school to find 5 of those kids back in her clinic, their medication not sufficient. Three of them needed oral steroids to fix their breathing. Another one of the 15 was home, too sick to go to school.
“I can only tell you the effects on the health of the children I see,” Gentile told BuzzFeed News. “On that basis, I can’t see why they are still running the coke works.” Children she saw in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania, a similar town with identical weather conditions about 20 miles away, had asthma symptoms still perfectly under control, unlike Clairton. The type of fine particulate matter pollution detected by ACHD monitors, she noted, also worsens heart disease and breathing disorders.
“The study group for whom Dr. Gentile collected data represents only a small fraction of the total population of children with asthma in the advisory area,” American Lung Association Director of Environmental Health Kevin Stewart told BuzzFeed News. “Any findings, if confirmed, of adverse health outcomes among her study group should therefore be regarded as only the tip of the iceberg.”
Based on census data for the 127,000 people in the 22 towns under the air quality advisory, there are roughly 2,000 kids and 7,000 adults with asthma, as well as 10,000 with heart disease and 7,500 with chronic lung disease.
Just upriver from Clairton, about 10 miles away, is the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, where smog deaths from steel and zinc factories in 1948 sparked the first US regulation of air pollution. For five days around Halloween of that year, a thick yellow smoke belched from those factories, encasing the town and killing about 20 people. It was the worst air pollution disaster in US history. An investigation led to the first US air pollution conference, and eventually the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act.
That law is the reason why the air in the Mon Valley is much cleaner today, though still among the worst in the country. Which is why the news of the Christmas Eve fire made people angry. The uproar that resulted from ACHD’s first warning led to a community meeting on Jan. 22, hosted by the city of Clairton. US Steel’s Chris Masciantonio spoke first, noting that the Clairton plant fed two steel mills in the area, employing 3,000 people in total. These were “good-paying, steel-making jobs that have been the pride of the Pittsburgh region for generations,” Masciantonio said.
For the meeting, US Steel launched a website to update Mon Valley residents on repairs. It also argued against “hot idling” the coke works, where the ovens are kept warm to prevent damage to them but no coke is produced. A hot idle of the plant would lead to more pollution being released than keeping the damaged plant running, the company maintained.
ACHD director Karen Hacker said at the meeting that it was “not surprising” that some children with asthma reported problems after the excess sulfur releases, since it was an irritant to the lungs. Still, the health department had not seen increased emergency room visits for asthma at local hospitals in the two weeks after the fire, she said.
All the while, the network of smaller monitors — known as RAMP sensors — run by Presto of Carnegie Mellon and his colleagues continued to pick up air quality problems in and around Clairton.
The app that Doreen Johnson uses every morning to plan her mornings with her grandkids relies on data from Presto’s RAMP sensor network. But having the information isn’t always helpful, she said. “I still have to go outside to get them no matter what.”
At the end of January, US Steel reported profits of $1.15 billion for 2018, almost tripling the number from the previous year. That was actually less than Wall Street had hoped for, and its stock price dropped on the news. The company has estimated it would spend $40 million on repairs at the Clairton plant in the first quarter of 2019, with contractors working around the clock to replace the damaged desulfurization machines. A mechanical failure near a compressor filled with flammable gas likely sparked the blaze, the company has suggested. Now there are so many repair contractors that the steelworkers union had to put a sign up on its parking lot next to the plant telling them to park elsewhere, Furko said.
February began with air monitors at Clairton’s high school registering excess amounts of fine particulate matter for three days in a row. “We did some analysis and it looks like that last violation was coming from the flaring of the coke gas,” ACHD Deputy Director Jim Kelly told BuzzFeed News.
At another meeting in Clairton, this time with Democratic state lawmakers called by Rep. Davis, US Steel again apologized, but continued to resist any suggestion to hot idle the coke works until repairs were completed, pointing to those 3,000 jobs in the Mon Valley.
The meeting was filled with steelworkers waving “Jobs Worth Fighting For” and “Steel Strong” signs. “Simply put, if US Steel ends up idling batteries, our members will lose their jobs,” Furko, the union local head, said at the hearing.
So many steelworkers filled seats at the meeting that Johnson was unable to find one, she said. “It’s incredible — they just kept the sick and the elderly from finding seats, from being seen.”
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat who has garnered national attention for championing both union workers and gay marriage (and because he is a 6’8”, bald, tattooed white dude), toured the Clairton plant a week later, calling for it to remain open. “It’s done the best anyone could expect,” he told reporters, standing in front of the plant, surrounded by steelworkers. Fetterman and his family live in a former car dealership across the street from one of US Steel’s other Mon Valley plants.
“You’re never going to hear me calling for the elimination of the union way of life for 3,000 families,” Fetterman told New York magazine about the Clairton plant. Building support from union workers and black voters was the key to preventing Trump from winning Pennsylvania in the 2020 election, he said in the same interview. Fetterman now uses the photo of himself standing in front of the Clairton coke works amid steel workers as the main image on his Twitter page.
(Fetterman’s deputy chief of staff, Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, told BuzzFeed News that the lieutenant governor “was well aware of the situation and the impact it has on people. We want to find the best way to make it better.” His office has scheduled a meeting with the state Department of Environmental Protection about Clairton next week, she added.)
“Our party is supposed to be pro-environment, but it is Democrats you hear talking about going along with US Steel,” Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee, who represents nearby Braddock, Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News. "We are like Flint, Michigan — this is just part of a larger pattern of environmental racism you can see when you step back and look at this from a wider perspective."
At the end of February, the county health department, which is charged with enforcing EPA pollution limits, told US Steel to cut its sulfur emissions from all three of its Mon Valley facilities below federal limits by extending coking times, reducing the amount of coal in its ovens, or hot idling as many of its batteries as needed.
The enforcement order was driven by the realization that the sulfur violations were caused by the flaring, pointing to problems with the overall mitigation plan. US Steel’s own data pointed to previously unknown violations, ACHD’s Kelly added. “All those standards are there to protect public health.”
In response, US Steel said it was accelerating completion of all repairs from mid-May to April 15, due to early delivery of specially fabricated parts. “We are committed to correcting the damage caused by the fire and completing equipment repairs,” the company said in a statement.
“It stays with you everywhere, knowing there’s a problem with the air we breathe,” Melanie Meade, 44, of Clairton told BuzzFeed News. Her backyard affords views of steam pouring from the coke works and of the flares from the hillside plant in West Mifflin. Even on a sunny day, the air carries the smell of diesel fuel. “Even when you stay inside, it’s the same air.”
Meade’s 2-year-old grandson has asthma, needing medication twice daily. Her 9-year-old son has severe allergies. Her brother died of heart disease in 2011, her parents in 2013; her sister died of lung cancer two years after that.
“We have a lot of deaths here that we wouldn’t have in places where there wasn’t so much air pollution — that’s my opinion,” said Meade, a clean air activist in Clairton. But even if you don’t believe her, she said, it was simply incredible that a factory with a long history of pollution was still running day and night months after its pollution controls had burned down. “If this was going on in a place with medium- or high-income people, there’s no way the plant would keep running.”
Although Allegheny County is one of Pennsylvania’s most prosperous counties, the towns along the Mon Valley like Braddock and Clairton suffer from high unemployment, with poverty rates ranging from 29% to 40%. Forty percent of Clairton’s residents are black, and black people make up 76% of Braddock’s population. Towns of a few thousand people near the factories are not where the bulk of the voters are in the county of 1.2 million people, 80% of whom are white.
The geography of the Mon Valley plays a role in poor air quality there, with steep hills trapping smokestack air, particularly on days with so-called weather inversions, where cold air in the shadowed valley hugs the ground, capped by warmer air above, “like a lid,” said Kelly, whose health agency sends out email alerts about these inversions.
“When you stand at the top of the hill, it’s about 300 feet higher than the bottom,” said Presto of Carnegie Mellon. “The stacks don’t quite clear the top of the valley.” Like sugar trapped at the bottom of a coffee cup, the bad air will stagnate in the valley unless stirred up by strong winds. The air is much cleaner in the Mon Valley today than it was decades ago, he noted, even if the county is still out of compliance with the Clean Air Act.
Still, “it feels like we bear all the burden, and don’t see any of the benefit, from having a multimillion-dollar industrial facility polluting in our backyards,” Meade said. “People tell us to move, but where are we supposed to get the money for that, and why should we leave where we grew up?”
Furko, the union local leader, told BuzzFeed News he wishes more people from Clairton worked at the plant, if nothing else because they would have an easy time making it to the facility in bad weather or emergencies. Past cost-cutting efforts at US Steel have hurt maintenance at the coke works, Furko said, and have ended past charitable support for local schools. At least 75% of the plant’s workers live in zip codes within 25 miles of the plant, he added.
“We live here too, and we care about the environment,” he said. “I’m sympathetic to the people in Clairton, but shutting down the coke works won’t solve anything.”
Presto sees it differently. “I think anyone who makes this about jobs versus the environment is cynically using the workers to avoid talking about air quality,” he said. “That’s the bottom line here.”
In the latest twist, on March 28, the ACHD reported that US Steel had again violated national sulfur standards, when a monitor at Clairton’s high school detected the 10th sulfur dioxide exceedance in the Mon Valley since the Christmas Eve fire.
US Steel suggested a weather inversion was responsible for the exceedance. “There have been no further exceedances” caused by the plant, US Steel spokesperson Meghan Cox told BuzzFeed News by email. “Our teams continue to work around the clock to mitigate [the] effects of the Dec. 24 fire.”
On April 4, the health department announced that it had been notified by U.S. Steel that the sulfur pollution equipment was “back online and is fully operational” at the Clairton Coke Works facility. “Throughout this process, the safety of our workforce and the surrounding community has been a top priority. While the fire was an unfortunate setback, we remain committed to improving our shared environment,’ US Steel said in a statement.
In response, ACHD announced it would begin “its comprehensive assessment of violations since the December 24, 2018 fire to determine the amount of the resulting civil penalties.”
But even before the fire, the Clairton coke works had become an outlier in terms of pollution violations, said ACHD’s Kelly. “We had declining compliance at the plant” since 2014, he said. That explains last summer’s million-dollar fine, which set a precedent by suggesting the company idle its dirtiest batteries. (The latest fine on March 31, for $700,000, came in response to violations prior to the fire.) “All the actions we were taking in the past weren’t working, so we had to take stronger ones.”
Once, Clairton was a steelworkers town, where people walked to work past theaters and bowling alleys and a beautiful park with an Olympic-size swimming pool. Now, because of the long, slow death of the steel industry (although bustling for the moment because of Trump’s steel tariffs), only the park is left.
In her driveway, Meade has parked an air monitor that connects to the network that feeds the app Doreen Johnson checks every morning. The monitor is downwind of the US Steel plant flares one hillside away.
“When I was a child, I thought the coke works were a cloud factory,” said Meade, looking down onto the Clairton coke works. “When I was older, I learned better.” ●
Albert Presto's first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.