Pivotal Clean Air Act Lawsuit Ends with Historic Settlement: U.S. Steel to Pay $42M and Introduce Pollution Controls

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PITTSBURGH, PA — PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, Pennsylvania’s major environmental groups, announced Friday that they have concluded a landmark Clean Air Act lawsuit against the United States Steel Corporation. This marks a significant repercussion for a case rooted in accusations of thousands of air pollution standard transgressions, initiated by a disastrous fire in 2018 and subsequent pollution control system breakdowns at the corporation’s three Mon Valley Works facilities.

If approved by the court, the proposed $42 million settlement, would constitute the largest penalty in a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement case in Pennsylvania’s history, offering a stern message to corporate wrongdoers. The majority of the fines, a notable $4.5 million, will directly aid public health projects in Mon Valley communities that have borne the brunt of persistent poor air quality due to proximity to the U.S. Steel plants.

In an era where the right to clean air is increasingly perceived not as a privilege but an entitlement, this pivotal announcement signals collective refusal to permit illegal air pollution to compromise the health of Pennsylvanians and their communities.

The agreement contains an additional clause mandating some $37 million in both pollution control and plant reliability enhancements designed to forestall future breakdowns of essential pollution control apparatus. To further cut down on toxic emissions, U.S. Steel is required to permanently decommission over 10% of their coal-processing coke ovens known for hefty pollution contributions.

This hard-fought settlement satisfies key objectives that drove the lawsuit’s inception. U.S. Steel must address the issue at the root- upgrading the ancient Clairton Coke Works- to reduce toxic emissions and prevent future system failures. The agreement also mandates the payment of a substantial monetary penalty, thus serving as a formidable deterrent against future violations.
The conclusion of this lawsuit is subject to a legally mandated 45-day waiting period. Despite the anticipated sale of U.S. Steel to Nippon Steel Corporation, lawyers for the environmental groups have reassured that the agreement is ironclad, mandating the purchaser to honor all incumbent terms, conditions, and obligations.

The lawsuit was filed in retaliation to the massive, illegal emissions of harmful gases for over 100 days following a catastrophic fire at the Clairton Coke Works on Christmas Eve 2018. A combination of corroded equipment and faulty safety systems led to a blaze that critically undermined several vital pollution controls. Despite this, U.S. Steel proceeded to operate two other plants without these legally requisite controls.

The broad terms of the proposed settlement also call for a stringent limit on the allowable amount of hydrogen sulfide in the coke oven gas used as fuel by U.S. Steel. Moreover, a system has been put in place to levy automatic penalties for any future pollution control system outages, regardless of the cause, making the penalties proportionate to the seriousness and duration of an outage.

The environmental groups hailed the decision, asserting that their goal with this case was to not only hold U.S. Steel accountable for its illicit pollution but also incentivize other pollutant companies to ensure safety in their surrounding communities.

The Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson steel mill have been a long-standing concern for environmental advocates in the region. The facilities have been flagged as significant contributors to air pollution in the county, drawing further attention to the pressing need for stricter environmental regulations.

In the grand scheme of things, this lawsuit provides a blueprint for future citizen-led enforcement actions, making it a landmark moment in the pursuit of cleaner air and a healthier environment. It’s a victory for both the environment and Pennsylvanians whose quality of life has been adversely impacted by air pollution.

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