PITTSBURGH—A recent study found that people with asthma who live near a U.S. Steel facility experienced worsened symptoms following a 2018 fire that damaged pollution controls—and that even prior to the fire, a trend of lower lung function was observed in people living close to the plant.
About a week after that study came out, U.S. Steel announced it would renege on its promise to invest $1.5 billion in equipment upgrades that would have substantially lowered harmful emissions at its Pittsburgh-area plants while providing the region with up to 1,000 additional union jobs.
The project was announced to much fanfare in 2019, but in the fall of 2020 during a quarterly earnings call, U.S. Steel’s CEO David Burritt said of the funds promised for the project, “The key word in all of this is really the optionality. We can decide to put it in Mon Valley. We can decide to put it somewhere else.”
Instead of investing in its Pittsburgh facilities, U.S. Steel exercised that “optionality” to purchase a non-union steel making facility in Arkansas that already has better pollution controls in place. It has also promised to eventually shut down some of the most polluting portions of its Pittsburgh operations, which would result in lower emissions but also a loss of jobs.
“We have invested approximately $400 million since 2018 to secure our future in the Steel City. As we set new horizons for our future, we remain honored that Pittsburgh is our home,” a U.S Steel spokesperson wrote in a statement to EHN. “U. S. Steel began its journey making steel in Pittsburgh, and today we optimistically continue this journey with a bright vision for the next generation of sustainable steelmaking.”
Health advocates, however, say the new study and this shift in plans epitomize the company’s history in the region, revealing an ongoing pattern of sickened residents, ongoing pollution, and broken promises.
“U.S. Steel had the capital to do these projects and they chose to invest the money elsewhere despite making a promise to people in this region,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a coalition of more than 40 environmental advocacy groups in the region, told EHN. “They have a long history of making similar big promises to our communities and then not following through with them.”
Residents at risk and in the dark
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works plant, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, converts coal into coke (a key ingredient in steelmaking) by heating it to extremely high temperatures in large ovens called batteries. It’s the largest such facility in the U.S. The company is frequently fined—and sued—for illegally high emissions from the site, which contain chemicals including formaldehyde, cadmium, arsenic, and sulfur dioxide, which often makes the region stink of rotten eggs. Exposure to coke oven emissions is linked to cancer, COPD, heart disease, and asthma.
In lieu of the promised equipment upgrades, U.S. Steel announced that in 2023 it will shut down the three oldest, most polluting coke batteries at the Clairton Coke Works, stating in its “open letter to our Pittsburgh family” that the decision is aimed at reducing the company’s carbon footprint. The shift will reduce coke production at the facility by about 17 percent, which will also lead to a reduction in emissions (though the extent of that reduction has not yet been quantified).
“I’d look forward to the reduction in air pollution, but 2023 is another couple years down the road where they’re continuing to allow toxics to enter into the environment and harm the people who live here,” Christine Panaiia, who lives in Jefferson Hills, about four miles from the Clairton Coke Works, told EHN.
Panaiia, a mother of two teenage girls who worked as a project manager for BNY Mellon for 22 years until COVID-19 hit, developed asthma as an adult—soon after moving to Jefferson Hills about 10 years ago. She signed up for an asthma registry through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s asthma clinic.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health used data from that registry for their recent study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, which determined that asthma patients living within 10 miles of Clairton Coke Works had an 80 percent increased risk of worsened symptoms following a fire on Christmas Eve in 2018 that damaged pollution controls and lead to illegally high levels of emissions for weeks afterwards.
On Christmas Day, 2018, Panaiia was preparing to host 10 members of her extended family for Christmas dinner when she started feeling sick.
“I was trying to get myself ready, get the house organized, and get the food ready, but as the day wore on I was having more and more difficulty breathing,” she said. “I felt sluggish and winded and I had to turn to my rescue inhaler. I couldn’t understand it—usually with my asthma it’s more of a gradual buildup.”
She pushed through her discomfort to host her family for the holiday and waited until the next day to call her doctor, who prescribed her a round of steroids to get her asthma under control. It wasn’t until several weeks later, when someone from the asthma registry contacted her about it, that she found out about the fire and the increased pollution.
“I was extremely disappointed that I hadn’t known about it sooner,” Panaiia said. “I have friends in the area who are also asthma sufferers…I heard lots of similar stories from people who have asthma or have kids with asthma who were having trouble breathing right after the fire and had no idea why.”
Panaiia and her friends weren’t alone. Of the people surveyed by University of Pittsburgh researchers, only 44 percent had heard about the fire.
“Keep in mind that these were all people who were already part of the registry, so they likely have a heightened awareness about their disease and its triggers,” Dr. Sally Wenzel, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Asthma and Environmental Lung Health Institute and co-author of the study, told EHN. “I’d guess if you just talked to people on the street, even fewer people in those communities would have been aware that there was a fire and that there was heightened air pollution that could be harmful to their health.”
Panaiia said she was frustrated by the news that U.S. Steel had canceled its plans to invest in better equipment at its Pittsburgh facilities.
“It’s mind blowing to me that a company of that size would choose not to care for the people in the immediate community living around its facilities,” she said. “Assuming they’ve been following the study the Asthma Institute released, you’d think they’d want to do right by folks who lived and worked at that facility.”
The study conducted by Wenzel and her colleagues also found that prior to the fire, asthma patients who live closer to Clairton Coke Works generally had lower lung function than those who live further away.
“If we looked at that group that lived within the 10 mile circle of the plant and those outside, we saw there was a significant decrease in their baseline lung function,” James Fabisiak, another co-author of the study and director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, told EHN. He noted that their sample size for this part of the research was small so further research is needed but added, “This implies that asthma severity may be worse for people who live in that particular area.”
This is not the first study linking Clairton Coke Works to increased or worsened asthma. In a 2018 study of 1,200 school children, researchers found the asthma rate for kids in Clairton was 18 percent. The national average is 8 percent. Emissions from U.S. Steel’s facilities also contribute to the region’s higher than average cancer rates.
Several of the communities surrounding the Clairton Coke Works plant are considered environmental justice areas, which the state of Pennsylvania defines as census tracts where at least 20 percent of people live in poverty and/or at least 30 percent are people of color. Environmental and racial equity advocates in the region have cited the high levels of pollution experienced by these communities as an example of environmental injustice. Wenzel noted that their study doesn’t include many of the residents in the region who are most at-risk.
“We noticed that in general people who came into the clinic to be seen were more advantaged from a socioeconomic standpoint than people who just filled out the survey,” she said. “I think we need to remember that the most vulnerable people out there probably don’t have time to come into the ivory tower to get their lung function tested or enroll in health registries, and we know that the most vulnerable people in these communities have worse health outcomes and higher mortality rates.”
A history of broken promises
About a week before announcing that it would nix plans to upgrade its Pittsburgh facilities, U.S. Steel announced plans to pursue a goal of carbon neutrality by the year 2050 and a 25 percent reduction of its carbon footprint by the year 2030.
The Breathe Project said the plan is lacking, citing the fact that the announced plans don’t follow Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reporting standards, the lack of involvement from community stakeholders in the decision-making process, the company’s ongoing air quality violations, and U.S. Steel’s recent opposition to proposed tightening of coke oven emission regulations during a public comment period.
They also pointed out that the industry has a long history of breaking its environmental promises.
Since as early as 1965, the company has violated clean air laws while continuously promising that it was on the verge of cleaning up its act. In 1975, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified the steel industry as the top industry that was failing to comply with the recently-passed Federal Clean Air Act, specifically citing U.S. Steel as a “problem polluter.” A New York Times story from 1975 details the company’s battles with federal, state, and county governments over pollution from the Clairton Coke Works—and many of the same pollution issues identified in that article persist today.
“They always identify an excuse. It might be a market downturn. This latest time it’s blaming the health department for delays in permitting related to COVID-19 and blaming environmentalists for wanting to improve air quality,” Mehalik said. “The reality is it’s always been under their control because they decide where to invest their capital.”
Throughout the 1980s and 90s during the collapse of the steel industry, U.S. Steel often hinted at the possibility of re-investing in other former plants in the region, including Homestead Steel Works, Duquesne Works and McKeesport Tube Works before ultimately closing those facilities, leaving polluted brownfields in their wake.
In 2008 U.S. Steel promised to invest a billion dollars to replace several coke batteries built in the 1950s, including batteries 1, 2, and 3—the same ones it’s now promising to shut down in 2023—but in 2014 they backed away from those plans.
In 2014, the company announced plans to build a new corporate headquarters in the Lower Hill District as part of an initiative to redevelop that region. Two years later they cancelled those plans, too.
In response to questions about this history, U.S. Steel said, “the Mon Valley Works’ low-cost operation makes it a vital part of our Best of Both strategy. The facility will continue supply to key customers in the appliance, construction, and service center markets.”
Mehalik said this is “not the behavior of an entity that values the community or its workers.”
“After 50 years of this, it’s time for local leadership to look for a new direction,” he said. “Our communities cannot succeed with this approach of misleading and broken promises for the future.”
Banner photo: Erica Butler of the Pediatric Alliance administers an asthma screening to Montaziyah Evans at Clairton Elementary School in Clairton, PA. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)