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U.S. Steel Emissions Settlement Finalized; Public Comments Provide “No Basis" for Altering Decree

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

A federal district court judge has approved a long-awaited consent decree that settles years of air quality violations at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson works, requires numerous improvements at the North Braddock facility, and imposes a $1.5 million fine on the company.

The judge’s Dec. 16 order finalized the agreement entered into by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), and U.S. Steel.

GASP and many others submitted official comments on the proposed decree to the DOJ in June 2022, raising concerns about the terms of the agreement, the sufficiency of the steps U.S. Steel must take to correct problems at the facility, and the use and adequacy of the fine.

In an October 2022 court filing, the DOJ explained how it and other parties viewed the public input they received: “After carefully reviewing and considering each comment, the United States has concluded that the comments do not provide a basis for rejecting the Decree.”

Importantly, it is not clear which, if any, commenters suggested the Consent Decree be rejected outright. It appears many commenters wanted changes, alterations, or at least a chance to be heard regarding ACHD’s use of its portion of the $1.5 million fine for a trail project, but all to no avail.

Regardless of how the commenters’ aims were characterized, the result is the same: The final Consent Decree approved in December 2022 is identical to the Consent Decree made public in May 2022. In this matter, the public had no voice.

But ACHD took a very creative approach to disagree with that position.

As part of the final decree, half of the $1.5 million fine will fund “the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development in support of the creation of a multimodal connection that links the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) in Rankin Borough to the Westmoreland Heritage Trail (WHT) in Trafford Borough through the Turtle Creek Valley.”

Many commenters pointed out that ACHD’s proposed use of the $750,000 fine lacked public input. ACHD responded, “the Turtle Creek Connector Trail Feasibility Study recounts that the Connector Trail was the subject of an extensive public engagement process that included a website, press releases, a virtual public meeting, fliers, signs, public open houses, and direct engagement with municipal officials and stakeholders.”

By suggesting that public input on a study assessing the feasibility of trail project is somehow a valid substitute for taking public input on how best to use a $750,000 fine, ACHD appears to be more interested in manipulative wordplay than engaging with the affected community.

In fact, ACHD has an official policy encouraging “active solicitation and consideration of community input” when using fines to pay for community projects. When addressing that policy specifically, ACHD again only noted dates and times when the trail feasibility study authors “collaborated to gather input from the public and affected communities” by way of a “website, press releases, a virtual public meeting, fliers and brochures, signs along trails, public open houses, and direct engagement with municipal officials and stakeholders.”

At no point did ACHD address the actual, pending, as-yet-unanswered, relevant question(s) posed to it regarding actions it took to seek community input on the wisdom of spending a $750,000 fine levied against U.S. Steel for violations at its Edgar Thomson facility on a trail project.

Other justifications provided in the court filing for not accommodating the affected, concerned community mostly centered on the expertise of the agencies, discretion afforded to the agencies when settling enforcement cases, and the agreement between the parties already being “fair, reasonable, and consistent with the goals of the (Clean Air Act).”

Regarding those fair and reasonable terms, you can get background on the longstanding emissions issues at the Edgar Thomson facility and the fixes proposed in the decree here. Briefly, the decree requires engineering evaluations of several processes, the adoption of engineering recommendations, improvements in emission controls, enhanced on-site air quality monitoring and more thorough maintenance practices.

“U.S. Steel facilities in the Mon Valley have been under some form of a consent order for most of the past 50 years,” GASP staff attorney Ned Mulcahy said. “The company has a bad habit of only fully complying with the law when compelled to do so by order of the court. I don’t think yet another consent decree addresses the underlying problem or addresses the public’s frustration.”

On the community impact specifically, GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell added: “While these negotiations dragged on, people were suffering and the agencies provided no updates to the public. After considering and rejecting public input, the agencies didn’t update the public and kept their response document behind a paywall. It’s hard to believe the agencies have the public’s best interest in mind.” He continued: “We hope this will be the consent decree that finally solves the problems, but we’ll believe it when, and if, we see it. For now, this does not feel like a just outcome.”

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