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CLAIRTON, February 7, 2019 – With an overflow crowd of steel workers and concerned citizens in attendance at Clairton City Hall, a joint state Senate-House Democratic Policy Committee hearing was held today on ways to improve air quality, community notification procedures and emergency response.

             The hearing was held in Clairton at the request of state Senator Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland) and Representative Austin Davis (D-Allegheny). It was prompted by a December 24, 2018, fire at the Clairton Coke Works that resulted in emissions of high levels of sulfur dioxide and damage to the facility’s gas processing system.  

              “We need to see to it that air quality standards are properly monitored, and that local emergency response and community notification procedures are accurate and timely,” Brewster said. “To accomplish this goal, we must bring together officials from U.S. Steel, the Allegheny County Department of Health, local governments, labor organizations and emergency responders.  We need to both address air quality issues and protect good paying jobs in the industry.”

               Davis added, “Improving the air quality in our communities is my top priority. I appreciate the testimony of all stakeholders. As we look to improve air quality it’s imperative that we look for effective ways to do so.”

               The hearing was jointly chaired by state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton/Lehigh) and state Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster).

               “Being raised in the shadow of the Bethlehem Steel plant, I am well aware of the seriousness of air quality issues and how communities such as Clairton must balance an economic reliance on good industrial jobs against health and environmental issues,” Boscola said.

               Sturla added, “I thank Representative Davis for bringing this important issue to the House Democratic Policy Committee’s attention. This joint public hearing helps ensure that all perspectives are heard as the legislature looks for effective ways to improve air quality.”

               Claiming that U.S Steel is committed to keeping the coke works operational and doing more to improve its environmental efforts, Chris Masciantonio, who serves as Director of Government Affairs & Public Policy for U.S. Steel, said, “The Mon Valley community is more than just the company’s home; it’s our company’s birthplace and where our employees work and live. The safety of our employees, our partnering contractors and our neighboring communities is paramount to our efforts.”

               Masciantonio argued that placing the plant on hot idle, as some environmentalists have urged, would be a lengthy, difficult and costly process.

                Don Furko, who serves as president of the United Steelworkers Local #1557, added, “Simply put, if U.S. Steel ends up idling batteries, our members will lose their jobs. This will begin a chain of events that will have a devastating impact on them, their families and our communities across the Mon Valley.”

               Members of environmental organizations and Dr. Deborah Gentile of Pittsburgh testified that residents of the Mon Valley have been exposed to pollutants for decades. They said the pollution level and related health threats were compounded by the recent fire and emission exceedance.

               Some of the environmentalists called for greater U.S. Steel efforts to comply with health and safety dictates and reduce pollution discharges. They also called on the Allegheny County Department of Health to step up monitoring, enforcement vigilance and provide more responsive public notification when problems arise.

                Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the county health department, said the department has already ramped up its enforcement efforts. She said her agency has imposed direct enforcement orders and civil penalties. She said the department’s expanded legal team has also stepped up inspections, toughened penalties and collaborated with state and federal environmental enforcement agencies.

                “The department will continue to be proactive and aggressive to improve air quality in our county, as our actions indicate,” she said. “We will continue to improve our communication via our current strategies through additional opportunities such as mobile phone applications and direct communication with citizens, municipal leaders and legislators.”

               The hearing follows a January 22 public meeting in Clairton.  Brewster, Davis and Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Rep. Bill Kortz (D-Allegheny) and Austin Davis (D-Allegheny) were also updated on January 25 by officials from the Allegheny County Health Department.                     

                Joining Brewster, Boscola and Costa at today’s hearing were Senators Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) and Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny). In addition to Davis, Sturla and Kortz, Representatives Summer Lee, Ed Gainey, Dan Miller, Brandon Markosek and Sara Innamorato (all D-Allegheny) attended.

A full video of the hearing is available here

                Those who testified included:

Panel from U.S. Steel Corporation:

  • Chris Masciantonio, Director of Government Affairs & Public Policy
  • Mike Rhoades, Plant Manager, Clairton Coke Works
  • Tishie Woodwell, General Manager, Environmental Affairs
  • Kurt Barshick, General Manager, Mon Valley Works
  • Jim Futrell, Vice President of Market Research and Analysis, Allegheny Conference on Community Development

Panel from Allegheny County Health Department:

  • Dr. Karen Hacker, Director
  • Jim Kelly, Deputy Director for Environmental Health
  • Michael Parker, Solicitor
  • Dr. LuAnn Brink, Chief Epidemiologist

Panel from area unions:

  • Don Furko, President, United Steel Workers Local 1557
  • Jeff Nobers, Executive Director, Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania
  • Ken Broadbent, Business Manager, Steamfitters Local Union 449

Panel of health and environmental advocates:

  • Dr. Deborah Gentile, Physician, Pediatric Alliance
  • Rachel Filippini, Executive Director, Group Against Smog & Pollution
  • Matt Mehalik, Executive Director, Breathe Project
  • Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania Director, PennEnvironment

 A full video of the policy hearing is available here.   

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