Third Circuit Grapples With Steel Plant’s Post-Fire Duties

U.S. Steel says its Clean Air Act permit already covers the issue, but a town that suffered months of smelly, harmful emissions after a plant fire says residents deserved additional disclosure.

Mon Valley Works is an integrated steelmaking operation under the U.S. Steel umbrella that includes the Clairton Plant, Edgar Thomson Plant, Irvin Plant and Fairless Plant. (Photo via Courthouse News courtesy of U.S. Steel)

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Environmentalists urged the Third Circuit on Friday to expand the reporting duties owed by U.S. Steel after harmful emissions lingered in a Pennsylvania town for three months following a plant fire.

Though the company argues that any emissions caused by the fire were already covered by its permit under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Integrity Project disagrees. It says the company never met its requirements under CERCLA, which is short for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, to alert the National Response Center about post-fire emissions. 

“If they had been properly reported, we would not be here,” Eric Schaeffer, an attorney representing the Clean Air Council, argued Friday at oral arguments before the Third Circuit.

The fire occurred on Christmas Eve 2018, crippling air pollution controls at a plant in Clairton, Pennsylvania, and causing a three-month release of harmful emissions over the town.

Benzene, coke oven emissions and hydrogen sulfide, which smells of rotten eggs, were among the gases released. Inhalation of these pollutants can be harmful, potentially causing respiratory problems and increasing the risk of stroke or heart attack.

For residents of Clairton, which has some of the dirtiest air in the state, the fire at the plant compounded existing problems. At 22%, the town’s rate of child asthma is twice the state average and nearly three times the national average. 

A federal judge dismissed the complaint in May of last year, but the company faced critical questioning Friday at Third Circuit arguments.

“So once you have a permit you can do whatever you like, is that your stance,” asked U.S. Circuit Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, an Obama appointee.

James Martin, a lawyer for U.S. Steel with Reed Smith pushed back, saying that obviously was not their position and that the emissions are already being reported, just not under CERCLA guidelines.

“All of the emissions in this lawsuit are regulatedm” said Martin. “So there is no debate that these emissions released in the air had to be reported under the Clean Air Act.” 

Elsewhere at the hearing, Martin emphasized: “U.S. Steel did not report the emissions because it was not required to as a matter of law.”

U.S. Steel faces a similar federal lawsuit brought by the Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment for failing to implement pollution controls at the three Mon Valley Works plants during the months following the fire.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski said the plants followed all of the necessary steps in reporting the emission releases.

“Environmental stewardship is a core value at U.S. Steel. Following the December 24, 2018, fire at our Clairton Works, we made prompt notifications as required by our operating permits and the Clean Air Act,” Malkowski said in an email. “We respect the District Court’s ruling that U.S. Steel made the appropriate notifications under the law.” 

Along with Judge Restrepo, two Trump appointees, U.S. Circuit Judges Stephanos Bibas and David Porter, sat on the Philadelphia panel that considered the council’s appeal Friday.

Schaeffer did not immediately respond to email seeking comment.

%d bloggers like this: