News

07/08/2019 - Philadelphia Energy Solutions extends pay for refinery workers

File photo

Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ refinery.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions has committed to extending pay for workers affected by the closure of its South Philadelphia refinery through Aug. 25.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s office said the decision came after Casey appealed to PES CEO Mark Smith on behalf of the workers.

“I have just secured a commitment from Philadelphia Energy Solutions to pay workers through the end of August. I will continue to monitor the situation and advocate on behalf of workers and families,” Casey said in a statement.

A representative for PES confirmed the move.

“The reason for this extension is that PES is continuing its efforts to secure the facility in anticipation of potentially rebuilding the damaged infrastructure, and preparing for a possible sale and restart,” the company wrote in an email.

Ryan O’Callaghan, president of United Steelworkers Union Local 10-1, said he met with the company Wednesday morning to start “effects bargaining” — a required bargaining procedure in response to the planned shutdown. During the meeting, the company provided him with a letter extending employment for union members until Aug. 25 and possibly 14 days afterward.

The union said PES initially failed to provide 60 days’ notice for its workers, as required in the contract and by city and federal law.The Aug. 25 date falls 14 days short of that, but it keeps the workers on through the expiration of their collective-bargaining agreement with the company.

Union hopes refinery will stay open

Meanwhile, the Steelworkers Union still holds out hope of keeping the refinery open. Tuesday night, the USW called a meeting with lawmakers to discuss next steps. O’Callaghan addressed more than two-dozen legislators with one goal: to rally support for finding a buyer.

There was an urgency to the plea. O’Callaghan said the refinery was not being shut down in a way that would allow it to start up again quickly, which could mean additional costs to a potential buyer.

The union president enumerated the effects the closure would have on workers and on the regional economy. He said it would put a strain on the supply of gas in the northeastern United States, forcing the region to rely on foreign oil and incur price spikes. He spelled out the losses in tax revenue to Philadelphia, saying that last year union members supplied the city with $9 million in wage taxes.

“That’s not including all the other workers that are [at the refinery]. That doesn’t include the taxes for the products, the permit taxing to the city and state. So it’s huge,” O’Callaghan said.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s office told WHYY News that an analysis of potential tax revenue lost will not be possible until more is known about the refinery’s plans for the shutdown.

In interviews with WHYY News, several industry analysts said it would be nearly impossible to find a buyer for the plant. A report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy said the refinery was likely going to go bankrupt again by 2022. The facility is outdated compared to other refineries in the United States and operates at below-average conversion capacity.

When PES took over the refinery in 2012, the company was able to take advantage of cheap crude oil shipped via rail from North Dakota. Since then, new pipelines have come online that take that crude to the Gulf Coast at a lower cost. And in 2016, the U.S. lifted the oil export embargo, leaving PES uncompetitive with respect to other domestic refiners.

Dropping plans to take the company public, PES declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018. Despite emerging from that proceeding, it had continued to struggle financially until the recent fire prompted the closure.

Gasoline consumption in the United States is on the decline due to improvements in efficiency, and there’s also no shortage of supply from foreign producers.

As for the gasoline shortage in the northeastern part of the country, a July 1 analysis of the closure from the energy consulting firm PKVerleger said, “The lost gasoline output is relatively irrelevant in the grand scheme of things given the global gasoline glut.”

When asked who he expects would be interested in purchasing the refinery, O’Callaghan said maybe an investment company.

“Somebody is going to take a chance,” he said.

But one analyst told WHYY that investors are generally avoiding the energy sector. In a recent statement announcing the closure, PES’s chief executive officer said the company planned to sell to another operator for “restart.”

Legislators show support for finding a buyer

Legislators in the room Tuesday showed widespread support for finding a buyer and reopening the plant. Several asked the union what they could do to help. One suggestion was to put pressure on the financial stakeholders, Bardin Hill Investment Partners and Credit Suisse Asset Management, to sell it to a company that would continue to run the South Philadelphia complex as a refinery.

State Sen. Tina Tartaglione, who attended the meeting, said the city, state, and federal governments could work together to create an incentive package and lure a buyer.

O’Callaghan has met with a task force set up by former Congressman Bob Brady to pull together civic, business, and political leaders — including Phillip Rinaldi, former CEO of PES — together to find a buyer.

State Rep. Chris Rabb asked O’Callaghan whether the union has considered buying the plant itself.

“I don’t know who would buy this,” Rabb said, “but your jobs will always be conditional based on whether or not the company is making money.”

O’Callaghan said that the union didn’t have enough money on its own, but that he would consider the possibility. “I’m going to go down every road that I can to keep this refinery open,” he said.

“The longer it’s down, the harder it is to start up. These people have to know what their fate is. We can’t just keep them in limbo,” Tartaglione said.

07/06/2019 - PES refinery workers face difficult choices as layoffs loom

Several days after the largest oil refinery on the East Coast announced it would close, there’s little information Ryan O’Callaghan, president of the United Steelworkers Local 10-1, can give his almost 640 union members who are still reporting for work.

According to O’Callaghan, communication between Philadelphia Energy Solutions leaders and the union has been sparse since the company announced Wednesday it would shut down the refinery— less than a week after a fire destroyed one of its units.

“All we know is that as of July 12, we will be terminated,” O’Callaghan said.

The union will begin the process of bargaining with PES for severance pay and other benefits on Wednesday.

One of the few things O’Callaghan can say with certainty is that if someone doesn’t buy the refinery — a hope he and others are holding onto — the more than 1,000 refinery employees losing their jobs will be entering a tight job market, and will face difficult choices about their futures.

“This is a specialty job,” echoed Shaina Marsden, an operator at the refinery for five years. “There are a lot of jobs, but they’re not right here in South Philly … This one was it.”

There are some 1,500 oil refinery jobs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware — the bulk of them based in South Philly.

The remaining chunk of refinery lab technician, mechanic, and operator jobs are in the Gulf Coast and Midwest, according to O’Callaghan.

Marsden said those jobs would take her far from her family and she’s not sure whether she’d pursue a new profession or leave her life in Philadelphia behind in order to stay in the industry. Marsden, 30, said she expected to work at PES until retirement.

She still doesn’t see why the refinery has to close.

Only one of the refinery’s units suffered extensive damage due to the fire — there are 29 more.

“There’s 29 units that still can run,” she said. “There should be no reason why this place is shutting down and so many people are now out of a job.”

Marson is not the only one who feels this way. O’Callaghan worries the company is “cashing in the chips and walking out the gate with maybe the insurance money.”

Last Friday, two workers filed a federal lawsuit claiming they weren’t given enough notice or severance pay as required by the WARN Act when more than 100 employees are laid off.

There are separate concerns that the refinery is shutting down operations too quickly.

“An oil refinery just can’t hit stop, it has to come down slow,” said O’Callaghan, noting PES is only expected to operate for another two weeks. “It has to come down the right way.”

When Sunoco shut down its Marcus Hook refinery in 2011, O’Callaghan said it took months to idle operations.

He suspects the refinery would have to keep employees after July 12, but he hasn’t heard of any plans to keep them past that date. He’s requested a step-by step outline of how units will be safely shut down.

PES did not respond to a request for comment.

While O’Callaghan tries to get his members as many benefits as he can in the layoff process, he has his own family’s life to consider.

His three children are older, but his youngest daughter was looking at colleges as recently as last week and at 47, O’Callaghan has a long way until retirement.

He said at least two of his union members recently bought homes and had new babies.

For O’Callaghan, the idea that these workers can retrain to work in another industry, as suggested by some environmental advocates, feels misguided and out of touch.

Almost half of O’Callaghan’s union members are more than 50 years old.

“You take a 58 year-old-guy or gal who was a mechanic at the refinery, what are you going to retrain them to do?” O’Callaghan asked, adding he’s heard almost no suggestions about what these other jobs might be.

O’Callaghan said he feels the idea of retraining is an empty talking point from politicians “just washing their hands of the situation.”

He’s heard environmental advocates suggest creating a solar or wind farm on the 1,400 acres occupied by the refinery, which he said doesn’t help his members too much.

“There’ll be jobs building the solar panels, but after they’re built, what then?” O’Callaghan said.

07/05/2019 - Fracking in Ohio: Citizens stepped in to protect water when the state did not

Ten years ago, the fracking industry was already booming in Pennsylvania, but people in Ohio were just starting to hear about it. Many were excited that it would help eastern Ohio’s struggling rural economy.

But Leatra Harper worried that the tradeoff would be their health and the environment.

Harper says her grandfather died from black lung. And his father had worked to unionize coal miners.

“I don’t know if this is in my DNA but I was just brought up that right is right and wrong is wrong,” she said.

Harper started the FreshWater Accountability Project, to protect Ohio waters from the next energy industry – natural gas. “If there’s something you can do, that’s on you.”

Each fracked well uses millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals. Much of this brinewater can flow back to the surface as wastewater.

Harper heard that a company, Patriot Water Treatment, had started working with the city of Warren, to send frack waste through their sewage treatment plant. She calls it the beginning of her “…trip down the rabbit hole with the fracking industry.”

Warren hit hard by the recession

In Warren, that trip started in 2009, when Tom Angelo was director of the city’s Water Pollution Control Works. “Fracking was something of great interest. It had a lot of promise to it,” he said.

Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Tom Angelo is the former director of the city’s Water Pollution Control Works. He now is a consultant for Patriot Water.

The local economy had tanked in the recession, and according to Angelo the city lost millions in tax revenue. Even worse, to him, the city lost jobs for its residents.

I was looking at the fact that General Motors had shut down, Thomas Steel had shut down. RG Steel had shut down. Mittal Steel had shut down,” he said, listing employers in the area.

Patriot’s proposal to Warren came at a good time. Angelo says it promised a million dollars a year in revenue.

“So when you’re looking at a two and a half million dollar deficit. You have choices,” he said.

The city chose to sign an agreement with Patriot and, after state approvals in 2010, began accepting Patriot’s wastewater.

The company’s president, Andrew Blocksom, declined an interview, citing family health issues.

According to Angelo, Patriot would treat frack wastewater, most of it from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, in its own treatment plant to remove heavy metals, and other pollutants before sending through the city sewers to Warren’s treatment plant, which would essentially dilute the wastewater. From there, it would be released to the Mahoning River.

The Mahoning joins the Shenango River in Pennsylvania, and forms the Beaver River – which is the drinking water supply for Beaver Falls and other communities.

Pennsylvania stops frack wastewater going to treatment plants

It wasn’t long into the fracking boom when elevated concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) known to be in fracking wastewater were found in the rivers in Western Pennsylvania. One pollutant in particular, bromide, forms chemicals linked with cancers and birth defects when mixed with disinfectants in drinking water treatment plants.

In 2011, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection requested that drillers voluntarily stop sending wastewater to public sewage plants and commercial treatment facilities in Pennsylvania.

Harper, who had started the FreshWater group, wanted Warren, Ohio to follow Pennsylvania’s lead.

We took it upon ourselves to appeal directly to Tom Angelo giving him our concerns,” Harper said. They shared studies showing high levels of radioactivity in frack waste, “…and other things that were completely ignored,” she said.

In a recent interview, Angelo still dismisses concerns about radiation in this wastewater. “It’s a naturally occurring radioactive material,” he said. “It’s not a problem. Relax.”

Angelo wasn’t alone in this view. Ohio lawmakers were also reclassifying radioactivity in frack waste to reduce regulation around it.

Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Warren’s sewage treatment plant essentially provided dilution for Patriot’s pretreated frack waste.

Saying ‘no’ to Patriot

Meanwhile, in 2012, Warren’s treatment plant permit to discharge waste into the Mahoning River needed to be renewed by OEPA. The new permit had a surprise for the city. It banned the sewage treatment plant from accepting oil and gas waste.

That was a “backhanded way of saying ‘no’ to Patriot,” said environmental attorney Megan Hunter, who worked with FreshWater Accountability Project.

This made Angelo, who was still director of Warren’s plant, angry. He says Patriot had built a $3.5 million treatment facility based on the previous approvals by the agency.

“A government is not in the business of putting business out of business. A government is in business to promote it,” he said.

The city of Warren and Patriot sued the state.

Ambiguity around regulating fracking wastewater

Documents from the case, heard by the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC), show there was ambiguity around which agency had the authority to regulate the flow of frack waste through a public sewage plant: the Ohio EPA or the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).

ERAC’s decision struck down Ohio EPA’s authority to prohibit Warren from processing oil and gas waste, and handed it to ODNR.

Both agencies declined an interview.

In an email, ODNR stated that after that case, it “never issued a permit or order to Patriot to treat oil and gas wastewater and send the water to the water treatment plant.”

But the way Angelo saw it, Patriot and the city had prevailed. “We won,” he said.

Warren’s sewage plant resumed accepting treated frack waste from Patriot.

Violations begin

FreshWater Accountability Project was concerned about pollution going into the Mahoning River. When the group’s attorney, Megan Hunter, reviewed Warren’s pollutant discharge reports between 2014 and 2016, she saw violations.

“It was all right there. Warren was clearly violating its discharge permit,” Hunter said.

Not only was Warren violating its permit, issued by the Ohio EPA, Patriot was exceeding its discharge limits to the sewage treatment plant, set by Warren, for pollutants like zinc, ammonia, and, in one case 68 times the limit of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), which includes salts known to come from frack waste.

By this time, Tom Angelo was retired from the city, and had started consulting for Patriot. And the environmental advocates found emails from the new director of the Warren treatment plant, Ed Haller, to city leaders and the Ohio EPA, outlining Patriot’s pollution violations, and their impact on the plant.

“[Haller] laid out in those emails that the waste [from Patriot] was so high in TDS, so high in salts, that it was harming their ability to process their own waste,” Hunter said.

But the city, and the state, continued to allow Patriot’s waste to flow through the sewage plant.

“They could have still said to Patriot, ‘This is oil and gas waste, and it is hurting our plant. And you have to adhere to this lower limit,’” Hunter said. “But they didn’t say that.”

Citizen enforcers step up

“A violation of a term of a discharge permit is a violation of the Clean Water Act,” Hunter explained. “And that means a citizen can access what’s called the Citizen Suit Provision of the Clean Water Act, and they can file what’s called a Notice of Intent to sue. And that’s what we did.”

Hunter said the government wasn’t acting, even though Patriot and Warren were clearly violating water permits.

The group then filed their lawsuit in federal court in June 2017. Within a month, Warren stopped accepting frack waste from Patriot.

And earlier this year, the city settled out of court with FreshWater Accountability Project.

The mayor of Warren, William Franklin, did not return The Allegheny Front’s calls for comment. The city services director, Enzo Cantalamessa, declined to comment, citing continued litigation related to this case.

Meanwhile, Harper of FreshWater Accountability Project has been vilified as a radical environmentalist who cost the city money. Harper says she put her group’s finances on the line for the public.

She says frack waste was harming the city’s own treatment plant, and potentially the drinking water for thousands of people downstream, and no one – not the city, not Ohio regulators – was stopping the industry. Until her lawsuit.

“[The lawsuit] was kind of as a last resort of course when all reason fails,” she said. “It’s very, very expensive and…sometimes it’s hard to find people to really stand up to that industry because it’s so huge and they have all the money and we don’t.”

But now, the U.S. EPA is shutting down this whole question. As of Aug. 29, 2019 the federal regulator is prohibiting public wastewater treatment plants across the country from accepting frack wastewater.


DV.load("https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6175948-2-Time-Stamped-FWAP-v-Patriot-Water-Treatment-Et.js", { width: 650, height: 900, sidebar: false, container: "#DV-viewer-6175948-2-Time-Stamped-FWAP-v-Patriot-Water-Treatment-Et" });

Freshwater Accountability Project v. Patriot Water Treatment Et Al Complaint (PDF)

Freshwater Accountability Project v. Patriot Water Treatment Et Al Complaint (Text)

07/03/2019 - Inside one of Pennsylvania’s most energy-efficient buildings

The Lombardo Welcome Center at Millersville University in Lancaster County is the first building in Pennsylvania to receive a zero-energy certification from the International Living Future Institute. Last year, it produced 75 percent more energy than it consumed.

07/03/2019 - Analysts say Philadelphia refinery, shut down after fire, unlikely to find a willing buyer

Emma Lee / WHYY

A fire burns at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery hours after a series of early morning explosions at the 150-year-old industrial complex at 3100 W. Passyunk Ave.

More than 1,000 people will be out of work once Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ refinery closes its doors this month. The closure comes in the wake of an explosion and fire that destroyed a crucial part of the plant. But despite pleas from the union, and comments from former Congressman Bob Brady, who told Plan Philly he thought the plant was “too big to fail,” industry analysts say finding a buyer who will keep it as a refinery will be next to impossible.

This facility was significantly less sophisticated than the other East Coast refineries,” said Phil Verleger, an economist and industry consultant. “It could barely hang on in a strong market. Once the export ban was gone, it couldn’t survive.”

When the shuttered Sunoco refinery was revived in 2012 with the help of Brady, the Obama Administration and state grants, its new owner The Carlyle Group took advantage of cheap North Dakota crude oil traveling to Philadelphia by rail. One reason the Bakken crude was so cheap, Verleger said, is because an export ban meant producers couldn’t fetch a better price overseas. When that was lifted, he said, the PES refinery’s days were numbered.

PES filed for bankruptcy in early 2018, citing the rising costs of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program that forces refiners that don’t blend ethanol to buy credits on the open market.

Verleger calls that claim a “fraud.” Nevertheless, the bankruptcy judge allowed the company to retire 138 million outstanding RFS credits.

This February, six months after exiting bankruptcy, Reuters reported the plant was again in bad financial shape. In just three months, its cash balance had fallen from $148 million to $87.7 million by the end of 2018. In May, Reuters reported the company had deferred payments into employee retirement accounts.

Verleger said it doesn’t help that investors aren’t eager to buy refineries these days, let alone one that had already fallen on hard times before the fire and explosion.

“Nobody’s going to find the money any place,” Verleger said.  “The energy sector right now represents 5 percent of the S&P 500. In 1980 it was at its peak at 20 percent of the S&P 500. Essentially the energy sector is being shunned by investors.”

Tom Kloza, an analyst with Oil Price Information Service, agrees that PES would have a hard time finding a willing buyer. One reason is that it refines light, sweet crude instead of the more profitable heavy, sour type of crude.

“Contrast what happens at PES with what happens at PBF, which operates the refineries in Delaware City and Paulsboro,” Kloza said.”They can run heavy sour crude, they have coking equipment, they take the heaviest parts of the barrel and turn it into the higher return transport fuels like jet and diesel. They’ll be the beneficiary when PES closes.”

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is actually two refineries — Girard Point and Point Breeze. The explosion destroyed the Girard Point alkylation unit, which is crucial to turning crude oil into gasoline. Some wonder why Point Breeze could not remain operational.

A statement by the refinery’s CEO announcing the closure says it planned to sell to another operator for “restart.”

But Kloza said that’s a fantasy.

“The CEO’s statement might have more appropriately said, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee…’ ‘Cause this is a Hail Mary,” he said.

There’s also the issue of the enormous environmental clean-up that needs to happen at the site. At this point, the doesn’t have an estimated cost but it’s likely in the millions.

“Every time a major oil company looks to sell a refinery in the U.S., they don’t want to sell it to a Wall Street group or private equity firm,” Kloza said. “You want to make sure you sell it to an entity that will be in existence for a long time or the environmental remediation will come back to haunt you.”

Christina Simeone, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, said she doesn’t see how anyone would want to buy such an uncompetitive refinery that also comes with a long legacy of environmental pollution, including an underlying aquifer.

“Who buys the land in liquidation?” she said. “Can they find a buyer? And how does Sunoco’s responsibility to clean up the site get impacted by the need to liquidate? There’s a bunch of really unanswered questions.”

Although the refinery was the largest on the East Coast, with its capacity representing about 27 percent of the fuel consumed in the region, there’s no lack of alternative sources.

Verleger said new refineries are opening up all around the world, including China.

“This is a global market,” he said. “And U.S. oil consumption is not increasing. [Newer] refineries could produce the products for lower cost and less environmental damage that can supply the market. The product can be supplied from the Gulf Coast by the Colonial Pipeline. Product can be moved in from Europe, or can be moved down from New Brunswick. There are plenty of alternative supplies are here.”

07/02/2019 - Residents with PFAS-contaminated private well water in limbo as DEP investigates cause

Those with private wells close to bases where PFAS chemicals were used have received bottled water. But some places are too far away for the contamination to be the direct result of training exercises, and too far away to have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency.

07/01/2019 - Pennsylvania environmental regulators move to shut down Erie Coke plant

DEP is denying the company’s application to renew its operating permit and filing a complaint with Erie County common pleas court, seeking an injunction to shut down the facility.

06/28/2019 - Lawsuit claims Philadelphia Energy Solutions failed to give workers ample warning of layoffs

A federal lawsuit has been filed on behalf of workers recently laid off from their jobs at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in south Philadelphia following an explosion and fire that destroyed part of the plant last Friday. 

The suit claims that on Wednesday, the company brought about 1,000 workers, including 614 union members, to a room and told them the layoffs would be effective Monday, with no severance pay.

The lawsuit accuses the company of violating the federal WARN Act, which requires employers of more than 100 workers give 60 days notice of massive job loss, or provide severance pay. 

The lawsuit, filed today in Eastern District Court in Philadelphia, says the company’s actions deprived “workers and their families some transition time to adjust to the prospective loss of employment, to seek and obtain alternative jobs and, if necessary, to enter skill training or retraining that will allow these workers to successfully compete in the job market.”

The lawsuit was brought by Nathan Rutkowski of Westmont, N.J. and Martin Harper of Media, Pa. Rutkowski worked at the plant for 6 1/2 years, while Harper has been employed by the plant for seven.

Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said PES notified Kenney it planned to lay off workers. But he declined to say whether that notification was “legally sufficient.”

The law allows for some exceptions, including unforeseeable circumstances.

The lawsuit says that In a letter issued to employees on Wednesday, PES senior vice president William Goodhart explained the exception to the WARN Act.

“Unfortunately, it was not feasible for PES to provide earlier notice because the business circumstances that followed the fire and explosion were not reasonably foreseeable.”

But the lawsuit claims PES should not be exempt.

“PES is or was in the business of being entrusted with highly volatile and flammable chemicals. For this reason alone, it was foreseeable to the company that an explosion like the one that occurred on June 21 could reasonably occur at its South Philadelphia refinery.”

The suit lists fires and accidents that occured at the plant dating back to the 1930’s. It also references a report by Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy published in September 2018 that predicted the demise of the plant.

Attorney Ben Johns of Chimicles Schwartz Kriner & Donaldson-Smith, who represents the workers, says in this case, the financial health of the company, including last year’s bankruptcy, precludes it from claiming an exemption to the WARN Act.

“We detailed a number of different explosions, fires, and similar situations here that led up to this,” Johns said.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that they may not have been putting as much of their resources into things that would have prevented something like this happening as one might expect.”

The lawsuit is a proposed class action, which would need approval by the courts to grant a class certification that would allow all employees to be included in the lawsuit.

“This has been devastating to a lot of families and there’s no guarantee that we will prevail,” Johns said. “But we really think we are in the right here. And we look forward to doing what we can to bring justice to these folks.” 

Credit Suisse Asset Management and Bardin Hill are controlling members of the company, while the former owners Carlyle Group and Sunoco Logistics (now a subsidiary of Energy Transfer) have a minority stake in the company.

06/28/2019 - US Steel, Allegheny County have a draft agreement on pollution violations

The Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Steel have a draft agreement to resolve multiple air pollution violations from the company’s Clairton Plant over the past two years.

The agreement calls on the company to pay $2.7 million in fines and put in place a suite of pollution upgrades at the plant. The company said the price of those upgrades is $200 million.

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.

Earlier this month, a judge allowed the agency to join a lawsuit by environmental groups over violations at the plant resulting from the fire. The company had a second fire on June 17 that knocked the same pollution controls offline for a day.

“We might not have gotten everything we wanted, but we believe this settlement will result in significant improvements to air quality and the lowering of emissions,” said Karen Hacker, Allegheny Health Department director.

Hacker said the negotiations with US Steel were lengthy and she wasn’t sure what would come of them.

“It was a long process and there were certainly many points at which we thought that they were walking away,” she said. “We were quite surprised that they basically decided to move forward.”

The draft agreement, if signed, resolves four separate enforcement actions at the Clairton plant, the largest coke works in the country:

  • a June 2018 order which fined the company over $1 million and threatened to idle some of the plant’s worst-performing batteries;
  • a $600,000 fine issued in October 2018
  • a $700,000 fine issued in March, and
  • a $300,000 fine issued in May.

In a statement, Sara Greenstein, senior vice president of consumer solutions at U.S. Steel, said the agreement fairly addressed the company’s reasons for appealing the fines and said it demonstrated the company’s “commitment to protecting our shared environment and neighboring communities.”

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 sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carcinogens like benzene.

The upgrades to the plant to be made as part of the agreement include the installation of 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.

In addition, the company will submit to annual performance audit by a third-party pollution specialist, expand environmental compliance training at the plant, and increase its reporting to the county.

Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health at the agency, said the reporting is a critical part of the agreement because it gives regulators a window into how the plant is performing.

Right now, he said, “They don’t report anything. We don’t know what their maintenance operations are. You’re seeing some problems — we just had a fire. They had a fire six months ago. Obviously we’re concerned about how they’re maintaining their equipment. So this gives us an opportunity to look into that.

“This gives us a lot of emission controls that go beyond what regulation would have required,” Kelly said.

The county agreed it will streamline its system of assessing penalties at the plant, clarify requirements for pollution testing, and define its procedures for developing new coke oven emission standards.

Of the $2.7 million in fines, 90 percent go toward a trust fund for five surrounding communities: Clairton, Glassport, Lincoln, Liberty, and Port Vue. The communities will decide how to spend the money.

The agreement also calls for the development of a community advisory panel of residents and elected officials from the closest communities.

The upgrades are separate from $1 billion in upgrades the company is making throughout its Pittsburgh-area plants. The company says those upgrades will lower air pollution from its facilities.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald praised the deal.

“I have always asked that the department do everything in its power to ensure that industry is meeting its obligations and responsibilities, and that we are protecting our citizens, and this agreement is a significant step towards meeting those goals,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “I look forward to U.S. Steel meeting these obligations that will benefit our county, our air quality, the impacted municipalities and their communities and residents.”

Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said in an emailed statement there were “several promising aspects” of the agreement.

“Repairs to leaking and poorly performing equipment, agreeing to a 3rd party audit of performance and thinking about directing fines towards community benefit are positive.”

Mehalik said he had “preliminary” concerns, like the fact that it “does not appear” that the communities surrounding Clairton were consulted in the drafting of the agreement. “The agreement also lends itself to perceptions of ‘pay to pollute’ and the proposed investments may not make a lasting difference in a facility that has ongoing breakdowns, fires, and plant failures to control air pollution,” Mehalik said.

The draft agreement will enter a 30-day public comment period beginning July 1. The public can send comments by mail to Allegheny County Health Department, Air Quality, 301 39th Street, Bldg #7, Pittsburgh, PA 15201-1811; by email to  aqcomments@alleghenycounty.us, or by fax to 412-578-8144.

06/28/2019 - ‘Something’s wrong here’: Washington County parents want Pa. to look deeper at whether fracking could be related to cancer cases

The state didn't find 'significantly higher' rates of a rare cancer. But some in the community want to know whether there's an environmental cause, be it from fracking or from something else.