Updated: Sep 9
Documents obtained through a public records request GASP submitted to the Allegheny County Health Department last month have provided new details about power outages at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works over the Fourth of July weekend – but also raise new questions about the condition of the facility’s electrical system.
Yes, we said outages. Plural. As in there was more than one.
As a reminder, ACHD on July 4 issued the following message through its Allegheny Alerts system:
Today, July 4, at 5:30 a.m., the United States Steel Clairton Coke Works plant experienced a power outage that affected plant operations. Power was recently restored, and the facility is working to return to normal operations.
The outage has required the flaring of coke oven gasses from the stacks and batteries. The Allegheny Health Department’s Air Quality Program has been monitoring its air quality monitors around the plant since the outage occurred.
Area 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. The Health Department will remain in contact with the plant throughout the day.
GASP’s records request yielded seven documents and three voicemails related to two outages reported to ACHD by U.S. Steel – one on July 2 and the other on July 4.
Here’s what happened…
Breakdown Report #1: What We Know About a July 2 Outage at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works Facility
U.S. Steel is required by its Title V Operating Permit and ACHD’s air pollution control regulations to notify ACHD immediately of any breakdown of pollution control equipment likely to result in the release of pollutants in violation of their permit or the other emission of toxic pollutants into the air and to follow up with a written report within seven days.
A breakdown report submitted to ACHD by U.S. Steel dated 9 a.m. July 5 reveals that U.S. Steel experienced the first outage from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. July 2 because of “electrical issues.”
The report was brief: It noted the breakdown resulted in elevated sulfur in the coke oven gas and that the company was “working as quickly as possible to repair issue.”
Under the section asking about measures taken during the shutdown, U.S. Steel provided a one-word answer: None.
You can read that breakdown report here.
Breakdown Report #2: What We Know About the July 4 Outage at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works Facility
About 20 minutes after U.S. Steel submitted the breakdown report detailing what happened on July 2, ACHD received a second breakdown report stating that the company “lost all power” to the Clairton Coke Works around 5:30 a.m. July 4.
Again, the report was brief, with U.S. Steel stating that it was “troubleshooting” and had “all hands on deck” to get the facility back online and that it was flaring coke oven gas at all of its batteries.”
U.S. Steel went into further detail in two follow-up breakdown reports submitted on July 11 and July 12, telling ACHD that a power outage had affected operations in Control Rooms #1, #2, and #5.
“The Clairton plan suddenly and unexpectedly lost power to the plant,” the report stated.
In addition to flaring, U.S. Steel noted that it had also extended coking times. The report stated that no pushing or charging occurred during the outage.
According to U.S. Steel, approximately 11.6 tons of sulfur dioxide were released during the 41-hour outage.
If at this point you’re saying to yourself, “Wait, I thought the Allegheny Alert released by the health department the morning of July 4 said that power had been restored to the plant? I’m confused?” then you are not alone.
An internal ACHD email, as well as correspondence between the department and U.S. Steel, show the health department was, too.
In an email to Air Quality Program staff, one ACHD staffer wrote, “Are we pointing fingers that it is 10:08 a.m. on July 5 and I do not have anything saying it was back online? Did someone else receive this information and not tell me?”
Then in a separate July 8 email exchange with U.S. Steel, ACHD asked the company to double-check and correct the date on the July 2 breakdown report. U.S. Steel then confirmed via email that the date was correct and that there had actually been two outages.
All told, the power outage lasted for 41 hours – from 5:30 a.m. on July 4 through 10:30 p.m. on July 5.
U.S. Steel provided three voicemail updates to ACHD as the outage continued.
Why the Documents Raise More Questions Than They Answer
It’s clear from recent history that “electrical issues” and general maintenance deficiencies continue to plague U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works facility.
Remember the Christmas Eve 2018 fire at the Clairton Coke Works that knocked key emissions reduction equipment offline for three months? Let’s not forget the cause of that fire, which was exposed in an award-winning, in-depth investigative report from Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier: Eroded equipment and sub-par facility maintenance.
We also want to point out that U.S. Steel is no stranger to electrical issues: Less than six months after that catastrophic fire, Clairton Coke Works’ pollution-control systems were again knocked offline thanks to an electrical fire that caused the closure of the same control rooms damaged on Dec. 24, 2018.
They are also the same control rooms impacted by the July 4 outage – #1, #2, and #5.
U.S. Steel’s maintenance and electrical issues haven’t just been the stuff of headlines, they have also been the subject of litigation.
For the uninitiated: GASP staff took a deep dive into a federal class-action lawsuit filed in April 2019 against U.S. Steel on behalf of its investors. The complaint includes testimony from current and former U.S. Steel employees who were deposed as—and referred to in court documents—as confidential witnesses.
Those confidential witnesses, one of whom worked at the Clairton Coke Works for 40 years, described systemic maintenance and operational failures at the plant.
GASP staff then looked at U.S. Steel’s air emissions compliance by analyzing Allegheny County Health Department’s 2018 enforcement order related to the Christmas Eve fire, as well as court transcripts from the hearing related to U.S. Steel’s appeal of that order.
That analysis showed that the company was struggling to comply with air emissions standards during the same period of time when the plaintiffs alleged U.S. Steel asked employees to “jury rig” machines and generally operated with a “don’t buy, get by” mentality.
There is also an ongoing legal case against the company filed by PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council alleging that systemic maintenance failures led to the Christmas Eve 2018 fire at the Clairton Coke Works and that U.S. Steel should be charged with 12,000 violations of clean air laws.
With all that said, here’s the bottom line: While both U.S. Steel and ACHD downplayed the July 4 outage, stating that impacts on ambient air quality were minimal and that there were no exceedances noted, they have failed to address what is being done to get at the root of the problem.
So we are asking publicly to both ACHD and U.S. Steel these questions:
Does the Mon Valley Works have a bigger electrical issue than officials have let on?
What steps are being taken to prevent power outages like the ones that knocked pollution-control equipment offline from happening again?
Were the July 2 and July 4 incidents connected? If so, had U.S. Steel taken action on July 2, could the second outage have been prevented?
ACHD told residents the morning of July 4 that the plant was back up and running and that flaring had ceased when in fact that was not the case – the Coke Works did not come back online the evening of July 5. Why wasn’t an updated message sent to residents?
“This seems like a case of ‘those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ ACHD inexplicably waited more than two weeks to tell Mon Valley residents that the Christmas Eve 2018 fire had occurred and that air quality was being impacted. The department rightfully was raked over the proverbial coals by community members and environmental advocates,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “ACHD had the opportunity July 5 to demonstrate its commitment to transparency and accountability and share updated information with residents to help them make more informed decisions about how to mitigate their risk and again they blew it.”
“Instead, the department waited as long as legally possible to release any documents related to the incident. At this point we feel like a broken record but will say it once more a little louder: Residents deserve better from both the health department and U.S. Steel.”
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned, this blog will be updated if and when we receive any further information.