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Hearing Officer Issues Split Decision on Coke Oven Dispute Between the Allegheny County Health Depar

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

Remember back in September when famously litigious U.S. Steel 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?

U.S. Steel already took a bow, telling the Pittsburgh Business Times in an “exclusive” story Friday that it had won the case. But GASP staff took a look at the Dec. 6 ruling and think it’s a draw at best.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s all get caught up on the recent past: In September, attorneys for U.S. Steel asked ACHD’s hearing officer to order ACHD to stop pursuing the proposed rulemaking regarding coke oven battery emissions and to rule that it does not comply with a high-profile, controversial settlement agreement and order the company and department entered into in 2019. 

That agreement came in the wake of a 2018 Clairton Coke Works fire that knocked out air pollution control devices and contributed to abysmal air quality for weeks. Why is it important? We’ll let our senior staff attorney John Baillie break it down:

“That settlement agreement resolved four enforcement orders that ACHD issued as a result of violations of emissions limitations at the Clairton Coke Works,” he explained. “Among other things, the Settlement Agreement provided that new regulations pertaining to the Clairton Coke Works be ‘technically feasible.’”

What is “technically feasible” is based on three criteria U.S. Steel and ACHD agreed to in that settlement (fair notice: this is where things get a little more complicated):

  1. Requirements must take into consideration the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s statistical Upper Prediction Limit methodology across all batteries based on inspections between Dec. 24, 2013 to Dec. 23, 2018;

  2. More stringent standards must be supported by a demonstrated compliance rate of not less than 99 percent for all regulated emissions points on the Clairton batteries over any consecutive 12-month period during a five-year period on a battery-by-battery basis; and

  3. More stringent standards must be supported by a demonstration that the standard correlates with a measurable reduction in hydrogen sulfide and benzene levels at the Liberty Monitor, an ACHD-run air quality monitor located approximately 1.5 miles north of the Clairton Coke Works.

What was being proposed in those regulations? In November 2020, ACHD published proposed revisions pertaining to coke ovens, which included:  

  1. reduced limits for sulfur compounds in the coke oven gas produced by coke ovens; 

  2. the inclusion of five new sulfur compounds (in addition to hydrogen sulfide) in the determination of the amount of sulfur in coke oven gas; 

  3. making definitions relating to visible emissions from pushing operations broader; 

  4. The imposition of new limitations of topside emissions from coke oven batteries.  

ACHD contended that these revisions were required to bring its coke oven regulations up to par with state and federal requirements; U.S. Steel opposed the revisions based on the notion that ACHD did not show they complied with the “technically feasible” requirement in the 2019 settlement agreement. 

And the ruling?

“His decision split the difference,” Baillie explained.

As for U.S. Steel’s “win?”

The hearing officer determined that the proposed revisions relating to reduced sulfur limits and the inclusion of new sulfur compounds in the calculation of compliance with those limits were not required by state or federal law, and thus invalid because ACHD attempted to impose them without complying with the 2019 settlement agreement. 

But ACHD got a win of its own: The hearing officer determined that the revisions relating to pushing emissions and topside emissions were required by state law, and thus valid despite ACHD’s not having complied with the 2019 settlement agreement.

For those who might not be intimately familiar with the coke-making process: Pushing emissions occur when coke is unloaded or “pushed” from the coke oven battery. Topside Emissions means any smoke and/or particulate matter emissions from one or more points on the top side of a coke oven battery (excluding charging emissions, which are generated from “charging” or transferring coal into the coke ovens).

“We just want to make sure that when we talk about who won and who lost, we remember why tighter coke oven regulations were necessary in the first place: To better protect public health in the Mon Valley, where residents continue to suffer from high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide pollution that are attributable to emissions from the Clairton Coke Works,” GASP’s Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. 

He continued:

“We urge ACHD and U.S. Steel to work together to devise new regulations that bring this pollution to an end and that comply with their 2019 settlement agreement so that residents can get a reprieve from industrial pollution that’s plagued the Mon Valley. Nobody is a winner in this scenario until air quality and in turn, public health is improved.”

Editor’s Note: You can read the 17-page ruling in its entirety here.

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