How Are U.S. Steel’s Air Quality Fines Spent? The Lion’s Share Goes to a Community Benefit Trust
Updated: Sep 9, 2022
The nearly $1 million in stipulated penalties the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) issued recently to U.S. Steel for air quality violations at its Clairton Coke Works facility had many asking: Where does all that money go? Who decides how it will be spent?
So, GASP thought it was an opportune time to revisit the U.S. Steel Community Benefit Trust established back in 2019 as part of a settlement agreement between the company and ACHD.
How is the U.S. Steel Community Benefit Trust Funded?
That 2019 settlement agreement saddled U.S. Steel with a $2.7 million civil penalty and stipulated that 90 percent of it be used to establish the trust, which benefits Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln, and Port Vue. The remaining 10 percent of that fine was to be paid to the Allegheny County Clean Air Fund (CAF). The agreement also mandated that 90 percent of future stipulated penalties benefit the fund.
That means that of the $859,000 civil penalty, $773,370 would be earmarked for the community benefit trust, with the remaining $85,930 to be funneled to the CAF.
GASP wants to pause here to make sure everyone understands: The U.S. Steel Community Benefit Trust is funded solely by air quality-related fines from the Clairton Coke Works and its continued existence is dependent on future air quality violations at the facility.
“When you read about these projects being completed in your neighborhoods, don’t for one minute think U.S. Steel funded them because they want to be good corporate citizens,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Cambell said. “The communities benefitting from this fund have already paid dearly.”
How Does the U.S. Steel Community Trust Work?
The community trust is administered by the Smithfield Trust Co., which is paid $3,000 per quarter for that service. The funds are allocated to the communities based on a methodology that takes into consideration things like population and area measured in square miles.
Using that methodology, it was determined that Clairton will receive 26.7 percent of the funds, Lincoln will receive 21.9 percent, Glassport will receive 19.9 percent, Port Vue will receive 16.3 percent, and Liberty will receive 15.1 percent.
The U.S. Steel Community Benefit Trust is governed by a board composed of one resident from each of the five communities who were “chosen by the respective adjacent communities in whatever manner they choose.” The board meets in private, and the settlement agreement spells out that it must meet at a regular place and time at least once every six months and calls for those meetings to be listed on the official websites of each of the five communities at least 60 days in advance.
At those meetings, members will consider and approve projects for funding.
What Projects Are Permitted? How Are the U.S. Steel Community Trust Funds Dispersed?
To be considered, the settlement agreement states that a project must be “anticipated to improve, protect, or reduce the risk to public health or the environment” and submitted to the board at least 30 days before a meeting.
While the settlement agreement addressed ongoing emissions problems at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the associated supplemental environmental projects do not need to be related to air quality.
The money can go toward physical infrastructure improvements such as the construction of a playground or the renovation of green space. Projects that foster the “creation or expansion of programs that are aimed at directly improving the well-being of residents” will also be considered. Projects are approved by a simple majority vote.
Here’s another interesting caveat: If a representative from one of the communities is not available to attend and vote it will be “deemed an affirmative vote in favor of any matter before the trust distribution board for a vote at such a meeting.” The agreement also indicates that if the board votes to reject a project, “reasonable detail of the reasons” will be provided.
How Can the Public Keep Tabs on How the U.S. Steel Settlement Money is Being Spent?
Unfortunately, the settlement agreement requires neither the Allegheny County Health Department nor U.S. Steel to prepare and distribute reports for the public detailing what projects were proposed, approved, and rejected. It simply requires publication of semi-annual account summaries.
Those semi-annual reports detail receipts and disbursements and must be posted to the official websites of each of the five communities benefitting from the trust within 60 days of its receipt. Copies of these reports, to be submitted on Jan. 31 and July 31 annually, will also be sent to the Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Steel.
Outside of those receipts, residents would have to do some digging to get more details on what projects had been approved and how much they cost. Last year, GASP staff scoured media reports and municipal meeting minutes to glean such information. That investigation showed that communities used U.S. Steel Benefit Trust money to do everything from pave roads and remove blighted properties to build a community recreational facility and purchase police equipment upgrades.
You can read that entire investigation here.
What Did Communities Get From the U.S. Steel Benefit Trust in 2021?
Each of the communities benefiting from the trust posted the annual account summary to their official website by the deadline except the City of Clairton. As of March 10, the document was still missing from the city’s site.
That summary, which provides financial information from Jan. 31, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2021, showed that more than $2.33 million was disbursed during that timeframe:
The City of Clairton received two cash disbursements totaling $665,302 in 2021. Community Benefit Trust meeting minute notes show the following projects were approved for funding:
$250,000 for a combination solar-powered, Wi-Fi-capable cameras and street lights
$200,000 for a recreational facility to be located at 571 Miller Avenue
$149,816 for a 2020 Peterbilt Dump Truck equipped with snowplow and salt spreader
$48,000 for the demolition of an unspecified abandoned, unsafe structure
$35,000 for the demolition of an unsafe structure at 438 St. Clair Avenue
Glassport Borough received three cash disbursements in 2021 totaling $431,649. Community Trust meeting minutes from April, August, and November of 2021 show the following projects were approved for funding:
$50,470 for blighted property demolition
$49,834 for a police vehicle
$44,967 for nozzles and self-contained breathing device apparatus
$20,600 for the 9th Street Park Development
$19,557 for Honor Roll Park Beautification Phase II
$9,715 for what the minutes describe only as “lifesaving devices”
$6,669 emergency apparatus garage
Liberty Borough received one cash disbursement totaling $87,187 in 2021. Community Trust meeting minutes show the following projects were approved for funding:
$41,994 for air cylinders for the fire department
$21,448 for a new tractor for the public works department
$15,181 for body and car cameras for the police department
$8,563 for a SAM trailer
Lincoln Borough received four cash disbursements totaling $613,332. Community Trust meeting minutes show the following projects were approved for funding:
$101,000 for a community office and warming center
$56,809 for self-contained breathing apparatus equipment for the volunteer fire department
$70,000 for what is described in the minutes only as “quality of life”
$50,000 for salt shed replacement
Port Vue Borough received one cash disbursement totaling $534,500. Community Trust meeting minutes from April, August, and November of 2021 did not include any information on projects for which Port Vue requested funding.
A review of 2021 and 2022 borough council meeting minutes reference various upgrades to Romine Park and the community recreation center as well as equipment and training for the volunteer fire department. No further information could be gleaned from available public sources.
“When the U.S. Steel Community Trust was first announced, the immediate concern for GASP was transparency, and it still remains a concern,” Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “GASP staff needed to scan multiple municipal websites and many months of meeting minutes to find even basic information about the projects paid for through the trust. We don’t think residents should have to be detectives to follow the money.”
Editor’s Note: Here are the dates for the upcoming Community Benefit Trust meetings for 2022. Please note that one already took place Feb. 24.
7:30 p.m. June 9 – City of Clairton, 551 Ravensburg Blvd, Clairton, PA 15025
7 p.m. Aug. 25 – Borough of Glassport, 440 Monongahela Ave, Glassport, PA 15045
7 p.m. Nov. 17 – Borough of Lincoln, 45 Abe’s Way, Elizabeth, PA 15037