A chemical plant in Chester will pay a $750,000 penalty for nearly six years’ worth of air quality violations as part of a settlement reached with the Department of Environmental Protection.
PQ Corporation makes materials and chemicals with various applications, from fuels to road construction to consumer products like toothpaste. It produces sodium silicate for use in hair dye, cleaning products, and water treatment systems. It also makes sulfuric acid for refinery operations.
The fine covers violations of the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act, including emissions limits and failure to submit emissions reports on time.
The DEP found the plant violated hourly emissions limits for either nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, or some combination of the three, for multiple days every quarter between July 2013 and December 2018. Those pollutants are known to exacerbate respiratory problems like asthma.
By another measure — 12-month rolling total emissions limits — the company has shown improvement. The facility was found to be in violation of its rolling totals continuously from July 2013 to late 2014, at which point the plant’s emissions monitoring system was certified by DEP. Since then, the plant has been in compliance with the 12-month limits.
DEP spokesperson Virginia Cain said the penalty was delayed as the agency worked with the company to make sure the permit limits were appropriate and to get the facility back into compliance.
This is not the first time PQ Corporation has paid penalties for the Chester site. In 2015, the company paid $215,258 to DEP for similar violations during an earlier time period, and in 2017 it paid an additional $7,540 for recordkeeping and reporting violations.
PQ Corporation acknowledged the new agreement in a statement and said it has continued to make progress in the past year to reduce emissions at the Chester facility in addition to improving operating and maintenance practices.
However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History database shows that the plant has continued to violate particulate matter limits throughout 2019. The database also shows a Clean Water Act violation found during an EPA site visit in March.
The PQ Corporation plant is just one of several sources of air pollution in the predominantly African American neighborhood near the Delaware River waterfront in Chester. Just a few blocks away is the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility, one of the largest municipal waste incinerators in the country, and one of the most polluting of its kind.
A year ago, four environmental groups threatened to sue over Clean Water Act violations, saying the plant was discharging toxic pollutants from its unlined coal ash ponds.
A draft agreement between US Steel and Allegheny County officials does not go far enough, environmental advocates and some residents said at a public hearing on the agreement Tuesday night.
But several workers at the company’s Clairton coke works say the agreement will make the air in Pittsburgh cleaner while keeping them at work.
The hearing was held Tuesday night to discuss a $2.7 million settlement drawn up by US Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department last month. The county could try to change the agreement based on public comment.
In addition to the $2.7 million fine, the agreement put in place a suite of pollution upgrades at the plant. The company said the price of those upgrades is $200 million.
At a hearing on the agreement Tuesday night in Clairton, a packed room heard testimony from residents fed up with the region’s poor air quality, public health and environmental advocates, workers at the plant, and US Steel executives.
Company officials testified that the upgrades were part of a broader investment by the company that will result in “significant” reductions in air pollution.
Kurt Barshick, general manager of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works, which includes the Clairton plant, said a separate, $1 billion upgrade to the company’s local plants will cut emissions of several pollutants, including reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by 50 percent.
“This project shows our continued commitment to improve air quality in the Mon Valley,” Barshick said.
The agreement does not resolve legal issues between the county and the company over air pollution problems that resulted from a Dec. 24 fire. That fire knocked out pollution controls at the plant for more than three months.
Deborah Gentile, an allergy and asthma specialist at East Suburban Pediatrics, testified that a study she performed showed that visits to emergency departments and outpatient clinics for asthma went up in the two months following the fire. She testified she had conducted the study by querying a local health system database and found that compared to the same time period from the year before, acute asthma visits nearly doubled.
Gloria Ford of Clairton said she had to go to a hospital earlier this month because she had trouble breathing the air. She implored the health department to hold the company accountable to clean air laws.
“US Steel acts with impunity. God forbid that the unhealthy air we breathe would be put upon them and their families,” she said.
But many testified in favor of the agreement.
Bob Breisinger of Jefferson Hills said he was glad to see US Steel’s billion-dollar investment in the region after seeing steel mills lay off workers for years.
“Now people are protesting against US steel investing in this valley. Has US Steel been perfect? No. They have not been perfect. However they are trying to do the right thing,” Breisinger said.
Scott Cameron, who works at Clairton Coke Works in one of its pollution control units, also spoke in favor of the agreement.
“It’s important. The jobs are important. Clean air is important. I think the agreement will help communities around here, it could benefit them more,” Cameron said.
The agreement includes a requirement that US Steel install air curtains for Battery B, one of 10 coke oven batteries at the plant, to improve the capture of fugitive emissions. It also calls for repairs to the wall of Battery 15, to cut down on leaks, and upgrades to pollution capture structures called bag houses at several of the batteries.
The agreement also calls for a new, taller stack at Battery 15, to increase the dispersion of pollution from the stack, and the reconstruction of several flues on some of the plant’s coke batteries.
Most of the $2.7 million penalty will be disbursed to local communities impacted by the plant’s air pollution.
In addition, the company would submit to annual performance audits by a third-party pollution specialist, expand environmental compliance training at the plant, and increase its reporting to the county.
Environmental groups praised some of the provisions of the agreement, but in a letter submitted to the health department, a dozen groups said it did not go far enough in serving as a deterrent to future air pollution.
Matthew Mehalik of the Breathe Project said it won’t address aging, leaking equipment at the plant.
“We know a lot of these batteries date to the 1950s and what’s specified in the agreement doesn’t address those core problems,” Mehalik said. “And so they may be putting some equivalent of band-aids on those, but at the end of the day you have old leaking problems and not a clear plan of replacing them.”
County officials have blamed Clairton for making the air in the Pittsburgh region worse in the past five years.
To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, the company bakes coal at high temperatures at Clairton. The facility is the county’s largest source of fine particles, and is a large source of pollutants like sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carcinogens like benzene.
The county’s air quality monitor in Liberty, a mile downwind from the plant, has shown increasing levels of pollution since 2014, and is the only monitor in Allegheny County that is out of compliance for EPA air quality standards.
In 2017, the Liberty monitor recorded the highest year-round amount of fine particles of any air monitor east of the Rockies, according to EPA data.
Emma Lee / WHYY
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey visited Monroe Energy refinery workers in Trainer, Delaware County, Monday to promote renewed bipartisan legislation that would eliminate the ethanol mandate, part of the Renewable Fuel Standard program.
The rule calls for renewable fuel, such as ethanol derived from corn, to be mixed into transportation fuel. The original intent was to reduce dependence on foreign oil and use more renewable fuel.
But opponents point to the country’s improved energy security. The United States is now a top producer of petroleum and natural-gas hydrocarbons, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Refiners are required to use over 19 billion gallons of renewable fuel this year — corn-based ethanol will make up almost 80% of that. By 2022, the requirement will increase to 36 billion gallons.A ‘costly’ rule for merchant refiners
Refinery leaders at Monroe Energy said the costs of meeting the mandate, or paying for “credits” when they don’t, can strain operations.
“There have been certain years in the last five years in which the cost of Monroe to comply with the RFS program actually was our No. 1 expense other than what [it] costs us to buy crude oil every year,” said Chris Ruggiero, vice president and general counsel at the company.
Another supporter of dumping the rule is United Steelworkers Local 10-1 president Ryan O’Callaghan. His union represents workers at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia.
O’Callaghan was at Monroe to speak to Toomey about saving PES, which announced plans to close and filed for bankruptcy after a fire and explosions in late June caused major damage to a unit at the refinery complex.
He called the rule outdated. “And it created a situation that is costly to merchant refiners and it may stop someone from investing in PES, that being an anchor around their necks.”Environmental concerns
Toomey argued that the country doesn’t need the rule because of the quantities of energy the U.S. is now producing. Instead, he said, the mandate is putting refinery jobs at risk.
“We don’t need to burn corn because we don’t have oil and gas,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. “And, of course, it’s also been clearly proven that ethanol is not helpful to the environment. In fact, it does more bad than good.”
Environmental concerns are why U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, co-sponsored the bill. She said the rule “increases the cost of food and animal feed and contributes to climate change, and it should be phased out.”
But Pennsylvania corn growers see it differently.
The state runs on a corn deficit and needs to import it from other states, according to Eric Rosenbaum, executive director of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers Association.
Though corn-based ethanol production is not a priority in the state, Rosenbaum said producers still need markets for corn.
“Ethanol is a great opportunity for corn producers to help in fuel production and help in greenhouse-gas emission and support the larger economy,” he said.Other deregulatory measures in the works
Environmental Protection Agency head Andrew Wheeler joined Toomey at the refinery for a tour. He said the EPA doesn’t have a position on Toomey’s legislation.
Instead, Wheeler touted deregulatory measures the EPA has taken under the Trump administration.
He bragged about changes to the Obama-era Petroleum Refinery Sector Rule, which aimed to control toxic air emissions from refineries. The changes gave refineries 18 more months to come into compliance.
Wheeler said the tweaks saved the energy sector more than $12 million in compliance costs and $80 million in capital investment.
“Rather than impose top-down mandates from Washington, we want to work with you to improve environmental protections in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the historic economic growth we’re seeing,” Wheeler said.
The state's open records office ruled some documents related to a 'blast radius' or 'buffer zone' should be public. But the Public Utility Commission is asking Commonwealth Court to agree that the data should stay private.
As part of a Navy-wide effort, the installation, which serves as a warehousing and logistics site, has reached out to nearby residents who have private water wells to do testing.
EnergySolutions would buy the site from the reactor's owner, First Energy. The deal does not include the still-operational Unit 1 reactor.
EnergySolutions would buy the site from the reactor's owner, First Energy. The deal does not include the still-operational Unit 1 reactor.
The new Secretary of Defense says he wants to review how chemicals in firefighting foam contaminated groundwater near military bases nationwide, including in Bucks and Montgomery counties. Locals active on the issue are skeptical if it will lead to action.
In his first day officially as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper created a Pentagon task force to address health and other problems associated with dangerous contaminants at more than 400 military installations. He says he will take an “aggressive and holistic” approach to cleaning up compounds known as PFAS and reviewing their health effects.
Hope Grosse, co-founder of the Bucks-Mont Coalition for Safer Water, who grew up across the street from the former Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster says it’s time for the Department of Defense to pay for the contamination.
“It’s too little, too late! Make the polluter pay, the polluter is the [Department of Defense] where I live and it’s over 400 sites in the U.S. and outside of the U.S.” she said. “I’m sick and tired of hearing how much money they are spending when there is no transparency involved in this process, the transparency is very cloudy and very concerning.”
Environmental attorney Mark Cuker, who’s also involved in the coalition, says he is hoping the commitment from Esper is sincere.
“They act like they are concerned, they give the impression that they are doing something but we have seen very little in the way of results so far that simply cannot continue and maybe this secretary of the [Department of Defense] recognizes that this cannot continue. They really do need to deal with this because it’s going to become more wide-spread and intractable as long as they keep kicking this can down the road,” Cuker said.
Cuker says the military hasn’t controlled its discharges off the Willow Grove Air Force base.
“Although the governor of Pennsylvania and the state legislature asked them to provide blood testing to residents who drank polluted water for years, they have refused to do that and that’s why I have had to file lawsuits over these things,” he said.
Formally called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are found in firefighting foam used at military bases and are in a wide range of nonstick and stain-resistant consumer products. First made after World War II, the compounds have been called “forever chemicals” because they are expected to take hundreds or thousands of years to break up. Federal authorities say the compounds appear linked to certain cancers and other health and developmental problems.
A new documentary released by ProPublica and CBSN Originals shows how some West Virginia residents found themselves right in the middle of the state's shale gas boom — and what happened to them as a result.