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Famously Litigious U.S. Steel Asks Hearing Officer to Kill Proposed Coke Oven Regulations Designed t

In a move that should not surprise anybody who’s been paying any attention to U.S. Steel’s history of dragging regulators through the courts, the company earlier this month asked an Allegheny County Health Department hearing officer to put the kibosh on long-sought updates to local coke oven regulations expected to help better protect public health. 

In a brief filed Sept. 9 and posted to ACHD’s appeals docket Sept. 13, attorneys for U.S. Steel asked ACHD’s hearing officer to determine that the proposed rulemaking regarding coke oven battery emissions does not comply with a high-profile, controversial settlement agreement and order the company and department entered into in 2019 following fallout from the 2018 Clairton Coke Works fire that knocked out air pollution control devices and helped tank local air quality for weeks.

In the brief, attorneys for U.S. Steel also asked the hearing officer to order ACHD to stop pursuing the proposed rulemaking further.

About That Settlement Agreement

The agreement between U.S. Steel and ACHD addresses the department’s 2018 enforcement order and all subsequent penalties issued against the Clairton Coke Works from 2018-19. 

It requires the company meet the improvement criteria of the 2018 enforcement order, which includes $200 million in plant improvements. Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. Steel agreed to be subject to quarterly stipulated penalties if those improvement criteria are not met.

But the agreement calls for more than just improvements: It also requires U.S. Steel to:

  1. File annual reports detailing the company’s CITE (Continuous Improvement to the Environment) efforts and achievements.

  2. Undertake five annual environmental audits.

  3. Establish a Community Benefit Trust where the majority of future fine money will be deposited. Those communities – Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue – are able to utilize those funds for projects that improve, protect, or reduce the risk to public health or the environment.

At the end of the day, in exchange for those concessions, U.S. Steel avoided compounded daily fines for air quality violations stemming from the fire and beyond – penalties that could have been astronomical.

At the time, both parties said the agreement would prevent arduous, drawn-out court battles over those potential fines.

But now, U.S. Steel apparently sees things differently.

What You Need to Know About U.S. Steel’s Argument This Time

In its brief, U.S. Steel attorneys argue that in exchange for the concessions taken by the company:

“ACHD agreed that it would not impose more stringent limits for coke ovens unless it first determines that the limits were technically feasible and based on specific criteria in the (settlement agreement) and the rulemaking is shown to correlate with a measurable reduction in benzene and hydrogen sulfide at the nearby Liberty Monitor.”

For its part, ACHD has maintained that it can indeed impose more stringent limits – that, in fact, it is required by law to do just that.

What Happens Now?

An Aug. 23 case management order shows that ACHD has until Oct. 8 to file a response. U.S. Steel may then file a reply brief by Oct. 22. 

Hearing Officer Max Slater’s order indicated that further dates related to the matter would be addressed in a future scheduling order.

GASP has been following this matter closely and will continue to monitor the situation and report back to you what we find out.

“We think it’s worth noting that U.S. Steel mentioned hydrogen sulfide reductions at a time when it is the subject of active enforcement orders related to the pollutant,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “It’s further worth mentioning that so far this year, there have already been 35 H2S exceedances at the Liberty monitor and 12 at the North Braddock monitor – so let’s not pretend that it isn’t a high priority issue that needs to be rectified as soon as possible.”

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