Environmental Groups File Lawsuit Against U.S. Steel for Not Reporting Releases of Hazardous Pollutants Under Superfund Law

U.S. Steel Operated Plants for Over Three Months without Pollution Controls, Failed to Report Releases

Pittsburgh – The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), on behalf of Clean Air Council, today filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel for continually failing to report releases of hundreds of thousands of pounds of hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and other hazardous pollutants into the air from three of its Mon Valley Works plants.

The releases started in December 2018 and lasted for more than 100 days. In violation of the federal Superfund law, U.S. Steel failed to report these releases to the National Response Center. In addition, it has failed to report separate, subsequent releases that occurred after U.S. Steel announced in April that its pollution controls were back online.

EIP attorneys filed the lawsuit on Clean Air Council’s behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“It’s critically important that industries promptly report releases of air pollution – as required by law – so that people living downwind can protect their families, and so that local health authorities can take appropriate actions to protect public health,” said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, senior attorney for EIP, representing Clean Air Council in this litigation.

A fire broke out on Christmas Eve 2018 at the Clairton Plant, which produces coke and coke oven gas for use as fuel in steelmaking processes. The fire damaged and shut down two key control systems that process coke oven gas to remove hazardous contaminants such as hydrogen sulfide and benzene.

Even though these pollution controls were offline, U.S. Steel continued operating its coke ovens for more than three months. Throughout this period, it burned unprocessed, contaminant-laden coke oven gas as fuel and through flaring at the Clairton Plant, Irvin Plant, and Edgar Thomson Plant. Based on U.S. Steel’s data and the groups’ estimates, this released hundreds of thousands of pounds of benzene (which can cause cancer), hydrogen sulfide (which can trigger asthma attacks and even death at high concentrations), and other hazardous pollutants.

“The Superfund law is not just about the cleanup of contaminated property. The notification requirement applies to releases to the environment, which includes air as well as land and water,” said Christopher Ahlers, staff attorney with Clean Air Council.

Under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (also known as the Superfund law), companies must immediately report unpermitted releases of hazardous substances to the National Response Center, which notifies state and local agencies and makes such reports available to the public. Each failure to report a release is a violation of federal law, carrying a potential penalty of over $55,000 per violation.

Even though U.S. Steel released hazardous substances for over 100 days—between December 24 and April 4—in amounts exceeding reporting thresholds, there is no record of a report by the company to the National Response Center regarding these releases. Across the three plants, U.S. Steel could face a penalty of over $50 million for its failure to report.

The same facilities also have a history of air permit violations, which are the subjects of other lawsuits and enforcement orders. In April, PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council filed a separate lawsuit against the company in federal court over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act relating to its operation without these controls. Earlier that month, individual residents filed a class action lawsuit over health impacts in state court.

For several months in 2019, the Liberty/Clairton area has had some of the poorest air quality in the U.S., according to EPA’s website AirNow. On several instances, including dates even after U.S. Steel claimed to have brought its control equipment back online on April 4, the Liberty/Clairton area’s air quality ranked worst in the U.S.

In the notifications that it was required to make under the Superfund law, U.S. Steel was supposed to estimate the specific quantities of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and other hazardous substances that it released above certain reporting thresholds. This reporting is meant to provide vital information to communities, agencies, first responders, and residents that they can use to assess risks and the full extent of health effects.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.

Clean Air Council is a member-supported, non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting everyone’s right to a healthy environment. The Council is headquartered in Philadelphia and works through public education, community advocacy, and government oversight to ensure enforcement of environmental laws. For more information, please visit www.cleanair.org.

Media Contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org or (202) 888-2703