Last month, we marked the first anniversary of the Dec. 24, 2018, fire and explosion at the U.S. Steel (USS) Clairton Coke Works that blew out a football-sized portion of the 120-year-old plant just down-river from Pittsburgh. What was already our region’s worst air polluter got many times worse, spewing noxious gases into the air for over three months.
On June 6, 2019, USS and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) announced a settlement agreement whereby USS would invest $200 million in upgrades to its Clairton Coke Works and $1.1 billion to build a new mill in its Mon Valley Works.
On Oct. 1, 2019, USS announced that for $700 million it was acquiring a 49.9% stake in Big River Steel, Arkansas, a modern electric arc furnace mill, with plans to acquire the remainder of the non-union operation within two years.
On Dec. 15, 2019, the Wall Street Journal revealed the findings of a 59-page report on the December 2018 explosion conducted for USS by an engineering firm. Citing current employees, former executives, hourly workers and investors, the study noted that the near disaster “… fits a pattern of failures that have made many of USS’ largest plants unreliable, inefficient and, in some cases, dangerous for workers and the surrounding communities.”
USS had a policy of cutting maintenance and failures were inevitable. The fire and explosion was caused by corroded sprinkler pipes and compressor valves. It could have been prevented.
It gets worse. Workers knew that an oil-fed compressor needed to be taken offline but managers decided to wait until after the holiday to avoid paying overtime. That compressor fed the fire. USS saved the money and the citizens of our region paid the price.
All of this is compounded by a company in disarray. Last fall Moody’s Investment Advisers cut USS’ credit rating to highly speculative, and its bond rating for unsecured debt and environmental clean-up to one notch above substantial risk of default.
On Dec. 19, 2019, USS announced that its financial picture was even worse than it had projected for year-end and it will slash its dividend, stop stock repurchases, lay off workers, suspend some operations and lower its capital spending for 2020 by $75 million.
The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, created in 1944 to work in partnership with Mayor David Lawrence to clean up our smoky city, has given up that mandate. Its summit to chart its next 75 years was partially funded by USS. Air pollution wasn’t on the agenda. They have assured their irrelevance.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald heads an operation charged with environmental protection, yet he is a cheerleader for USS. He wanted to secure political support rather than push to improve our air quality. He was reelected last November.
Officials at ACHD have stated that if USS doesn’t live up to the settlement agreement the Clairton Coke Works will be shut down. Given the precarious financial condition of USS, it is likely the settlement agreement won’t be fulfilled.
We must monitor this process, and if commitments are not met, hold our elected officials accountable. With no election in the offing, this may be a time for public protest. It has worked at other times for other issues. It can work here too. pjc
Howard Rieger was president/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, 1981-2004, and president/CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, 2004-2009. He is a community activist in Pittsburgh and Chicago.