Clean Air and Good Jobs in the Mon Valley — Changing the Debate

Patrick Young
Feb 9 · 9 min read
Packed room at Clairton City Hall for the meeting on the Air Quality Crisis. Photo credit Rep. Miller

At 4:15 am on Christmas Eve, a fire broke out at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Plant outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania causing significant damage to the plant’s №2 and №5 control rooms and vacuum machines used to clean coke oven gases. Without the use of the damaged equipment the plant cannot perform desulfurization of the coke oven gas generated during the coke-making process. Repairs to that equipment will not be completed until at least May 15, 2019.

In the meantime, continuing to operate the facility will result in increased emissions of Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), a pollutant that irritates the nose, throat, and airways causing coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, and is particularly dangerous for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions. US Steel has attempted to mitigate some of its SO2 emissions by substituting natural gas for coke oven gas, but the facility is still releasing dramatically elevated levels of SO2. As a result, air quality levels in the area have gotten so bad that in nine of the first thirty-five days of 2019 local regulators were forced to issue air-pollution warnings advising people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses to stay inside.

The string of air-quality warnings and the strong odor emanating from the plant has led many residents and environmental and public health advocates to call for the impacted ovens to be placed on hot idle until the repairs are completed. US Steel has argued that it can continue to operate safely and many workers at the facility have expressed concerns that temporarily idling the facility may lead to permanent job losses.

This isn’t the first time this conversation has played out in the Mon Valley.

Anyone who lived in the Pittsburgh area through the 1970s and 1980s can remember hazy the cloud of pollution that covered the city day-in and day-out. Kids who grew up in the area have the piles of albuterol inhalers to remind them of the very real health impacts of all of that pollution. And in recent years Clairton Works hasn’t exactly cleaned up its act. As recently as last June, the Allegheny County Health Department fined US Steel $1 million for repeatedly violating its own commitments to reduce harmful emissions at the coke works.

But anyone who lived in the Pittsburgh area through the 1970s and 1980s can also remember the devastating collapse of the steel industry. Each lay off, each mill closure, each plant shutdown brought on another wave of foreclosures, divorces, and suicides. Poverty, domestic violence and alcoholism soared while wages, school quality and the region’s tax base dropped precipitously. Shopping malls with minimum wage jobs and fake smokestacks replaced steel mills with secure jobs with living wages and retirement security. And the string of shutdowns hasn’t ended. As recently as 2016 DTE shuttered its Neville Island coke plant laying off 175 workers. Thaddeus Popovich from Allegheny County Clean Air Now — one of the groups that is now advocating for the hot idle at Clairton celebrated the news by telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “maybe I’ll do my exercise locally instead of going to North Park. That’s how dramatic a change it is.” Popovich did not have a comment about the 175 families who learned that they were losing their income just days before Christmas.

A Contentious Discussion

In response to widespread concerns over the situation at Clairton, the House-Senate Joint State Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing on “Improving Air Quality” at the Clairton City Hall on February 7th. The hearing included testimony from five US Steel Executives, four health department officials, four environmental advocates, and three union representatives. No representatives of community or neighborhood organizations testified and while there were three representatives from organized labor only one person who actually worked at the coke works, USW Local 1557 President Don Furko, was invited to speak.

Hundreds of Steelworkers turned out to the meeting, wearing their orange work uniforms with many bringing along “Steel Strong” and “Jobs Worth Fighting For” placards recycled from their recent round of contract negotiations. Residents and environmental activists held up signs reading “Hot Idle Now” and “No City is Livable with Dirty Air.” Without time on the agenda for direct discussion with each other, workers and residents were left to jockey to get their signs in the line of news cameras and respond to the four hours of statements from “leaders” and “experts” with applause or jeers.

Labor reporter Mike Elk from the Payday Report described the meeting as contentious with the click-bait worthy headline, “Steelworkers Heckle Black Pa. State Rep at Air Quality Crisis Hearing in Pittsburgh.” He concludes his report by lamenting, “for many frustrated residents of Pittsburgh, the Steelworkers’ embrace of U.S. Steel is yet another reminder of how disjointed the labor movement can be from the communities in which their members are employed.”

Reframing the Discussion

Throughout the hearing and subsequent discussions on social media, the situation in Clairton has adopted the frame of the tired and failed “workers versus communities,” “jobs versus the environment” debates. As long as working-class people and industrial workers are at odds with each other, capital will win out.

What if we could re-imagine what this discussion is about and what is at stake? While nobody is openly advocating for the closure of Clairton Coke Works, it is clear that this is really what everyone is talking about. Coke-making is a notoriously dirty enterprise and it will always be associated with negative health and environmental consequences. On one side we have a group of workers who are deeply invested in the future facility and they’re willing to accept the risk of serious health consequences for themselves and their communities to ensure that the facility keeps operating. On the other hand, we have a community that is not sharing the same benefits of the facility and they are much more willing to accept the risk of the facility shutting down.

Just hours before the hearing on improving air quality took place in Clairton, Congressional Democrats, under the leadership of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, announced the details of their Green New Deal proposal. The proposal calls for “a 10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of the American society at a scale not seen since World War 2 to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and create economic prosperity for all.”

While the proposal is still very short on details, it is undebatable that achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions will require massive investment in clean energy infrastructure. That means a massive demand for basic steel to build windmills, solar fields, hydro-electric facilities, smart grid electric infrastructure and any number of other projects.

Right now, the Clairton Coke Works is one of only a handful of coke plants still operating in the United States and coke production is an essential component of steel manufacturing. Without the coke produced in Clairton and the handful of other coke facilities in the US (each with their own share of environmental problems), we’ll be forced to import the steel we need to build the Green New Deal from facilities in China or India operating under even weaker regulatory frameworks than the Clairton facility. By shutting down the Clairton Coke plant we’ll just be pushing coke production out of our backyard into somebody else’s back yard.

If we can start the conversation about the situation in Clairton with a shared commitment to keeping that plant operating, we can start to dive deeper and develop real solutions to not just navigate the four months between now and when the current round of repairs is completed but to ensuring the long-term health and safety of workers and the community.

Lifting Up Voices of Workers and Communities

What if we were to restructure the conversation to put workers and community members at the center and let the bosses and politicians participate as observers. If workers and fence line community members have an opportunity to actively participate, to speak, ask questions, be heard, and hear each other, they would be able to leave their signs, chants and jeers (which up until now had been their only avenue for participation) behind.

Three representatives from labor were invited to provide testimony at Thursday’s hearing but only one of them actually worked at the Clairton and even then, their participation was limited to sharing the economic effects of idling the facility. Workers in the affected units and in the plant’s maintenance department have a wealth of experience and direct knowledge of what is actually possible and how we might find solutions that reduce emissions while keeping as many people working as possible. Health and safety representatives from the union have a wealth of knowledge about the health impacts of various solutions and strategies for keeping workers and the community healthy and safe.

People living in Clairton who have not been sharing in the economic benefits of the facility need a seat at the table to articulate what it would take to make the plant benefit the entire community. Local hiring commitments, investment in local economic development, or local procurement commitments could create opportunities for residents of the Mon Valley to share in more of the benefits of the manufacturing that is happening in their backyards. If local environmental organizations were committed to ensuring that the facility continues to operate, we could find ways to implement cleanup and remediation obligations in the event of a plant shutdown that would make it cheaper to implement new pollution controls than shut down the facility.

Pulling together these voices that have been pitted against each other for so long isn’t easy, but it can be done. In Richmond, California in the shadow of Chevron’s massive refinery complex, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and USW Local 5 have worked closely to hold Chevron accountable, winning significant improvements in refinery safety and local investment. In the petrochemical alley in Louisiana, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade works closely with refinery and chemical plant workers to monitor fence line emissions and refinery safety. In Corpus Christi, Texas refinery workers, the Sierra Club, and refinery row residents successfully partnered to push refineries to stop using hydrofluoric acid and switch to safer alternatives.

There are no easy solutions to the air quality crisis in the Mon Valley. For decades, US Steel has put the entire community at risk by working to evade regulations and continuously cut costs. The entire region has faced generations of disinvestment and regional political leaders seem more interested in attracting tech giants like Google and Amazon than creating economic opportunities for working-class people who have called the Mon Valley home for generations. Trust and lines of communication between many working-class people in Mon Valley communities and unions representing manufacturing workers have been deeply eroded. This crisis did not happen overnight, and it will not be solved overnight. But there is a lot at stake. If there is going to be meaningful progress we need to reject the capitalist jobs versus environment frame and search for solutions that can guarantee good jobs and a clean environment. And there aren’t shortcuts in this hard work. Elected leaders and environmental health experts can play a role and provide technical support but transforming this debate requires a much more authentic and democratic forum. Movement journalists can provide important perspectives, but such a challenging situation calls for a little more light and a little less heat. Together, the people who are most directly impacted by this crisis — the workers and the residents of Clairton and the Mon Valley — can develop smart solutions to address the crisis and ensure good jobs and healthy communities. In fact, they’re the only ones who can solve this crisis.