In 1995, the Monongahela River Valley’s air was among the most polluted in the United States. This collection of municipalities, about 10 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, sat downwind from the Clairton Coke Works, which is a giant factory engaged in one of the dirtiest industrial processes known to civilization. It had been established decades earlier that people who grew up close to dense air pollution could suffer from chronic bronchitis, heart disease, premature death, lung cancer, and other debilitating ailments. If nothing changed in the Mon Valley, people would continue to suffer.
One major barrier existed between Mon Valley’s residents and clean, breathable air, however: the US Steel Corporation, one of the largest steel companies in the world. It wasn’t going to change anything without a fight. But a fight is exactly what it got.
The Steel City
There's a reason why the city's NFL team is named the Steelers, why its tallest building was until recently known as the US Steel Building, and why the mention of the "steel city" evokes black-and-white images of thick smoke above bricked streets in downtown Pittsburgh. From the 1860s through the Carter administration, Pittsburgh was the most productive steel producer in the United States. During World War II, more than half of the country’s steel was produced along the city’s three rivers. Hundreds of steel mills were notorious for coughing a thick fog of soot toward the city and anywhere else nearby.
Steel mills were notorious for coughing a thick fog of soot toward the city
That soot sometimes forced the city to keep downtown streetlights illuminated in mid afternoon, and it made the city’s rivers look like sludge. But it also gave generations of blue collar workers the ability to make excellent wages and comprise one of the strongest economies in post-war America. So the pollution was tolerated. But as with most US industrial cities, Pittsburgh went through decades of decline in the late 20th century. Raw materials became scarcer and, as steel companies looked for ways to cut costs, most moved their operations to other parts of the world. As a result, almost all of the city's steel mills closed and the unemployment rate skyrocketed. By 2000, the population of Pittsburgh was almost half of what it had been in 1950.
While Pittsburgh's economy took a major hit from the death of steel, its environment thrived. Though seemingly nothing could generate revenue like the steel industry did, education and medical industries served as its replacement. Eventually, the city’s rivers no longer resembled open sewers. The sky was no longer constantly overcast. Over the course of a couple decades, Pittsburgh went from a deeply polluted industrial center to a city with blue skies and greenery-covered hills.
In 1995, the county’s health department placed 10 pollution monitors throughout the county to measure “particulate matter” in the air — which can mean dirt, dust, smoke, or soot, as well as matter so small it can only “be detected using an electron microscope.” According to Jim Thompson, air quality program manager at the Allegheny County Health Department, the concentrations were high across the county. At the Liberty–Clairton monitoring site, which sat atop a high school, particulate matter was 30 to 40 percent higher than any other monitor in the county, making it among the highest in the nation. At that time, there were no federal standards in place to help the county enforce regulations. For US Steel it was bad publicity, but little more.
That began to change in July 1997, when the EPA set forth standards to regulate the amount of particulate matter in the air above 2.5 microns in diameter (known as "PM 2.5"). To put this into perspective, Thompson explained that 2.5 microns is “one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair."
Rather than adopt new standards that would force companies to make expensive technological investments to clean up their operations, industry groups, states, and companies — including US Steel — filed a massive lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to halt the application of the standards. Until that lawsuit was resolved, the movement to clean Mon Valley’s air was put on hold.
Almost four years of legal back-and-forth followed, but eventually the Supreme Court found that the standards fit “comfortably within the scope of discretion permitted by our precedent.”
Allegheny County could now force US Steel to clean up its dirtiest factory.
The Clairton Coke Works is the largest coke-making facility in the US. It’s twice as big as the next-largest facility in the country and among the biggest in the world. Besides housing an inherently dirty process, the Clairton Coke Works sits in the valley created by the Monongahela River, the topography of which tends to trap the heavier-than-air pollution.
“If this plant were somewhere else, it wouldn’t be nearly the problem that it is,” says Jim Thompson.
To make steel, you first need coke. Coke is produced by heating coal in an oven, in the absence of oxygen, to about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for between 12 and 36 hours. The process produces a hard, porous material that generates significantly more heat energy than coal does in its unrefined state. Since coke-making is exclusively designed to drive off impurities, it’s one of the dirtiest industrial processes in the world. Unless these harmful impurities are either burned off, chemically neutralized, or physically captured, they are released into the atmosphere.
In the years that followed the Supreme Court’s decision about PM 2.5, the county worked with US Steel to make a plan for cleaning its coke works. US Steel's initial investment of nearly $100 million (and $400,000 in fines) in 2007 has since grown to over $600 million this year to make the coke works less of a polluter.
A future in the making
Today, data collected at the Liberty–Clairton monitor looks surprisingly good. It has met its 2015 goals for particulate matter pollution ahead of schedule, and Pittsburgh's slipped from the third to the eighth most polluted city in the country. The air pollution problem in the region is certainly not solved, though. An administrator at the Clairton City School District told The Verge that “about half” of the kids in the K–12 school system are dealing with asthma. The national average for children is about 9.8 percent.
US Steel fought against pollution regulation in the name of saving jobs, but even with the expensive changes it was forced to make as well as the major challenges it faced in the wake of the Great Recession, US Steel remains based in Pittsburgh, and the Clairton Coke Works remains a major employer in the Mon Valley. And the county has done everything it can to make US Steel happy in the meantime, recently decreasing the Clairton Coke Works’ property tax bill by about 78 percent.
According to Dave Levdansky, a former Pennsylvania state representative of 25 years and a former employee of the Clairton Coke Works, US Steel’s forced investments should tell us something about the role environmental protection plays in business.
“People think, ‘If the company is forced to make all these changes that only treehuggers want, they’re just going to shut the goddamn thing down,’” he says, letting himself speak freely as a non-politician. “It’s not that people necessarily trust [US Steel]; it’s that they see any environmental changes as forcing the company to take business elsewhere, to places where regulations are less strict.”
Pittsburgh has changed a lot in the last 50 years, he says, but manufacturing is still an important part of the economy.
According to Levdansky, companies like US Steel are focused on short-term profits and don't realize that it's in their interest (and the interests of their employees) to invest in new technologies that will help them remain competitive in the future.
"The trick," says Levdansky, "is to get the companies to think long term."