GASP on Wednesday submitted formal written comments to the Allegheny County Board of Health in advance of its Wednesday meeting, again imploring members to demand more transparency and meaningful public communications during and after high-profile emissions events like the one at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works on July 4.
Around 10:50 a.m. that day, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) sent just one short message through its public Alert system to notify residents that an unplanned outage at the facility made it necessary for U.S. Steel to flare coke oven gases from its stacks and batteries.
U.S. Steel first reported the outage around 5:30 a.m. July 4, so ACHD’s messaging to us was too little, too late.
Here are our full comments:
Dear Allegheny County Board of Health,
I am writing as the executive director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution. GASP is an environmental nonprofit representing more than 400 Pennsylvania residents. We have been working for clean, healthy air in our region since 1969.
You have undoubtedly heard about the July 4 early morning power outage at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works – an incident that sent heavy smoke and flames spewing from the facility. Residents who are signed up to receive Allegheny Alerts received a public notice regarding the outage around 10:50 a.m. on Independence Day – hours after the incident was reported to ACHD.
The alert was just a few paragraphs and stated the unplanned event required the flaring of coke oven gases from the Coke Works’ stacks and batteries, ACHD was monitoring air quality monitors around the plant, and those monitors, “have not indicated any adverse conditions since the event and it is believed that the power outage will either not affect or only minimally affect plant emissions.”
In closing, the Alert stated: “The Health Department will remain in contact with the plant throughout the day.” To our surprise and dismay that was the only information shared with the public regarding the July 4 incident. There was no follow-up. While GASP appreciates the department vowed to remain in contact with U.S. Steel throughout the day, our public health officials – again – failed to provide timely, updated information to the residents whose public health they are charged with protecting. The Allegheny Alert stated that the effect on air quality was expected to be minimal, but it altogether ignored its impact on the community. Residents told us about feeling like they were choking that day, and the SmellPgh app shows numerous reports on July 4 that reference a strong sulfur odor and resulting physical symptoms like headache, difficulty breathing, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. During the peak of Pittsburgh’s air pollution problem, the city was once described as looking like “hell with the lid off.” In stunning Breathe Cam footage, that’s exactly what the Coke Works looked like on July 4. GASP last week called on ACHD to provide the public with a detailed update on the incident and its impact on air quality that considers wind direction, which could explain why the Clairton and Liberty monitors did not show spikes: It wasn’t blowing toward the monitors that day. Despite statements from leadership at the health department this past year touting their commitment to improved communications with residents – especially those who live in environmental justice areas like Clairton and other Mon Valley communities – not much has changed.
ACHD continued its routine practice: They waited until hours after the incident to release any information to the public, ignored how it impacted residents, and failed to follow up with further information. Furthermore, there was no attempt at compassion or empathy for the people whose Fourth of July holiday was upended, and quality of life impacted.
Earlier this week, GASP again called on the department to release more details, specifically requesting that ACHD release to the public a breakdown report that U.S. Steel was required to submit within seven days of the incident. Again, we received no acknowledgment or information from the department.
On Tuesday, we contacted ACHD legal staff to make an informal Right-to-Know request for the document and received no reply. This morning, we submitted a formal request for the documents.
GASP is a watchdog organization that works to keep residents educated and hold both polluters and regulators accountable. We know that making such information requests is sometimes necessary to ensure that residents have access to reliable information.
However, in such a high-profile incident, ACHD should take seriously its commitment to transparency and make all information regarding the July 4 Clairton Coke Works incident publicly available. We are asking you – our public health leaders – to demand meaningful transparency from ACHD so future incidents that risk public health might be avoided.
Sincerely, Patrick Campbell Executive Director Group Against Smog and Pollution