Fire in Pa. triggers pollution concerns

The second fire in six months at U.S. Steel’s massive coke plant outside Pittsburgh knocked a key pollution control system offline Monday, triggering a health warning as officials monitored the air around the plant for signs of a release of toxic sulfur dioxide.

The Allegheny County Health Department threatened to shut down the plant unless U.S. Steel acts quickly to fix its damaged equipment, while elected officials and environmental groups alike chastised the Pittsburgh-based steelmaker. A Christmas Eve fire in the same area of the plant caused $40 million in damage and significant releases of sulfur dioxide, a pungent byproduct of fossil fuel combustion that can make it hard to breathe.

“I’m very disappointed that this is happening again. People in this community need assurance that the pollution control equipment is reliable and usable,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the top elected official in Allegheny County, said in a statement. “I implore U.S. Steel to use all due speed to get this fixed as soon as possible and to take immediate steps to put in a back-up system for their operations. The health of the people of Clairton and surrounding communities, and the U.S. Steel employees, is too important to do otherwise.”

U.S. Steel said late Monday it’s reviewing the health department’s emergency order, which requires it to demonstrate compliance with air emissions limits within three weeks. Company spokeswoman Meghan Cox said crews have made “good progress” toward restoring equipment that removes sulfur dioxide from coke oven gases.