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Study Details Health Implications of PA Coke-Plant Fire

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Wednesday, July 7, 2021   

PITTSBURGH -- In southwestern Pennsylvania, the health effects of an industrial fire more than two years ago are just now coming to light.

A new study in the journal "Toxics" found asthma-related doctor and emergency-room visits doubled in Clairton, after a fire at the U.S. Steel coke plant there in December 2018.

The fire left the plant's air-pollution control equipment out of commission for three months.

Dr. Deborah Gentile, allergy and asthma specialist and medical director of Community Partners in Asthma Care and the study's senior author, said because U.S. Steel kept the plant running, emissions were 25 to 35 times higher than they were before the fire.

"And what we were able to show with the Clairton Coke Works fire was that, you know, on top of that chronic exposure to pollution, when you have an acute event that raises the air-pollution levels even more, you see these acute effects on asthma," Gentile explained.

The study showed the increase in asthma cases correlated with higher levels of sulfur dioxide surrounding the plant. U.S. Steel announced in April it plans to shut down three of its high-polluting coke batteries in Clairton by 2023.

Community members in the region have expressed frustration that they weren't notified about the fire in the immediate aftermath.

Howard Rieger, a Pittsburgh resident and founder of East End Neighbors Fight Pollution, said it's unacceptable there was no county alert system in place to warn people of environmental and public health hazards.

"How about a text message on our phones?" Rieger suggested. "You know, when we're told we are going to get five inches of snow tomorrow, we get an alert, why couldn't we get an alert about this? So, to a certain extent, I think the county was culpable. To a great extent, the company was culpable."

Rieger added just this year, in April, Allegheny County started sending public air-quality alerts.

Last week, environmental groups requested a federal court require U.S. Steel to confirm allegations that the company violated the Clean Air Act more than 12,000 times at its Mon Valley area plants in 2018 and 2019, in connection to a lawsuit.


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