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ACHD: Public Should Be Aware of Potential Elevated SO2 Levels Following Newest U.S. Steel Fire

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

UPDATE: U.S. Steel issued a statement Monday night indicating that its desulfurization unit was back online. On Tuesday afternoon, the Allegheny County Health Department announced that inspectors had been on site and verified that the systems were again operational.

The Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) on Monday advised the public that it should be aware of the potential for elevated sulfur dioxide levels following a fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.

“ACHD was notified by U.S Steel at approximately 4:43 a.m. of an electrical equipment fire that occurred at its Clairton Coke Works facility. The fire has been put out,” the department said in a press release on Monday. “Control rooms 1, 2 and 5 were shut down because of the fire. Control 1 is now back to normal operations. Currently, control rooms 2 and 5, which hold the equipment and controls necessary to clean the coke oven gases, remain shut down.”

These are the same two control rooms that were immediately shut down following the December 24, 2018 fire.

As these control rooms remain offline. This means there is no desulfurization of coke oven gas. Multiple mitigation measures are underway, like those used after the December 24 fire.

ACHD confirmed that health department inspectors on-site “have been instructed to observe the damage and will be providing additional information to the department.”

Sensitive populations, including those with respiratory conditions, children, and the elderly, should be aware of the potential for elevated levels of SO2. The department stressed there “is no need for residents to take specific precautions at this time.”

ACHD will continue to gather additional details to determine the next course of action and will keep the public updated as further information becomes available.

In a press release posted on its website Monday morning, U.S. Steel said:

“Early this morning, Monday, June 17, a small electrical fire was detected on an electrical breaker panel impacting power to the by-products facility of our Clairton Plant. There were no injuries and the fire was quickly extinguished. Immediately, steps were taken to mitigate environmental impacts.
Crews are working to assess the facility and the steps necessary to return the facility to normal operations. At present, the desulfurization process is not operational. We are following mitigation steps to include replacing coke oven gas with natural gas and flaring while we work to repair the damaged equipment.
We have notified all appropriate regulatory agencies and will continue to provide updates to the public as more information is available. We will update our website with this information.”

In a statement posted on her personal Facebook page Monday, Rep. Summer Lee, whose district includes several Mon Valley communities, said:

“Today, we’ve learned there was yet another fire at the Clairton Coke Works, shutting down gas cleaning capabilities in the same 2 control rooms that were damaged in the Christmas Eve fire (currently USS’s announced 1b investment does NOT include upgrades to the coke work’s batteries).
Again, residents of the Mon Valley, particularly Clairton residents, are at risk of elevated levels of sulfur dioxide. Again, those who already have respiratory conditions, children and the elderly are vulnerable.
Still, Allegheny County and the Mon Valley experience among the worst air quality, and are continously exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution.
Again, I’m sure, USS will go on with business as usual and demand the workers and residents to do them same… Yea, enough is quite enough…I DARE all of my colleagues, fellow local electeds AND labor to stand WITH us and join me in offering bold leadership. We’re in environmental crisis! Nothing less will do! So how much longer will we twiddle our thumbs? Asking for the Mon Valley…”

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Erica Stassburger also weighed in on the matter. She shared a Tribune-Review story on Twitter with the following comment:

“Something drastic has to change here. The people of Clairton and surrounding communities deserve much better. I don’t want workers to lose their jobs, but we NEED to get a handle on air pollution in the region – for our health, our children’s heath, and for our economy.”

Editor’s Note: Below is a screenshot depicting SO2 levels at the Liberty Monitor. Hydrogen Sulfide spiked to 50 ppb early Monday morning there.  It had been at 0 ppb for the previous 20 hours and has averaged 3.8 ppb since the spike.

Check back to GASP’s website—we will update this story as further details become available.

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