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Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Newest TRI data shows Clairton’s impact on surrounding community

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just released its preliminary 2013 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data for industrial facilities across the United States. The data includes information on U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pennsylvania, the country’s largest coke manufacturing plant. The Clairton facility has been in the news the past couple months for its inability to control “pushing emissions” at its new $500 million coke battery (Pittsburgh Post Gazette Article). The TRI data quantifies the toxic emissions coming from the Clairton plant, including toxic air emissions. Below are two tables showing a select number of Clairton’s air emissions. Table 1 shows Clairton’s total greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalents, and Table 2 shows major toxic pollutants for 2013.

Table 1. Clairton’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions for 2013
Greenhouse Gas
Total Facility Emissions (CO2e)

There are generally two types of air emissions at the Clairton Plant -- fugitive emissions and stack emissions. Fugitive emissions refer to emissions that do not come from stacks, chimneys, vents, or other controlled openings, whereas stack emissions, as the name implies, come directly from facility stacks. Both types of emissions affect air quality, though fugitive emissions are generally more difficult to control.

Table 2. Clairton’s Major Air Pollutant Data for 2013
Chemical Name
Pounds Released
Fugitive emissions
Stack Emissions
Fugitive emissions
Stack Emissions
Cyanide Compounds
Fugitive emissions
Stack Emissions
Hydrogen Cynanide
Fugitive emissions
Stack Emissions
Hydrogen sulfide
Fugitive emissions
Stack Emissions
Fugitive emissions
Stack Emissions
Fugitive emissions

The TRI report also indicates Clairton’s compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. The report states that the plant is in violation of the state implementation plan, as well as National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants governing coke batteries and by-product recovery.  The report’s compliance history section indicates a history of non-compliance and a significant violation of the Clean Air Act in May of 2013. One can see from the data that fugitive emissions account for a large amount of toxic air pollutants emitted by this facility.

While the TRI data is not the entire story, it provides an eye-opening look at the significant amounts of toxics emitted by a facility of this type and size. To access the entire toxic emissions data for Clairton, including water emissions, air emissions, compliance records, and waste transport, visit the EPA’s TRI Envirofacts site here (Clairton is the last facility on the list). Background information about TRI and common TRI terms can be found here

George Jugovic is chief counsel for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Alphonse makes a play

In March, this blog described a “bureaucratic version of the Alphonse and Gaston routine” – “After you, Alphonse.” “No, you first, my dear Gaston.” – in which two units of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were pointing to each other as the responsible regulator while failing to prevent polluting discharges of eroded sediment from a parcel of land in Fayette County known as the Curry site. Cast in the role of Alphonse was the Waterways and Wetlands (W&W) Program in DEP’s Southwest Regional Office in Pittsburgh, and playing the role of Gaston was DEP’s Mining Program.

As noted in the earlier post, baseball broadcasters describe two fielders who both shy away from a catchable fly ball as “pulling an Alphonse and Gaston.”

An update is required: Alphonse has stepped up and made a play!

PennFuture learned last week that on June 19, the W&W Program issued Compliance Orders to Appalachian Timber Company (available here) and Curry Lumber Company (available here) for failure to implement or maintain effective erosion and sediment control best management practices at the Curry parcel, in violation of DEP’s regulations.

The orders state that the cited violations have resulted in sediment pollution entering Morgan Run, a stream running along part of the western boundary of the Curry site that is entitled to special protection as a “High Quality Cold Water Fishery.” The remedial actions required by the orders include submitting a revised erosion and sediment control plan to the Fayette County Conservation District by June 27 and implementing specified best management practices by July 1.

Recent seeding operations and other activities at the Curry site suggest that W&W’s orders have had a beneficial impact, but the permanent stabilization of disturbed areas required by W&W’s compliance orders takes time, so there may be more tell about this part of the story.

There is another part of the story, however, that does not appear to be covered by W&W’s compliance orders. The biggest erosion and sedimentation problems observed at the Curry Site during the last several months have been outside the Morgan Run watershed. Citizens and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement have documented problems on eastern portions of the Curry site that drain directly into the High Quality waters of the Youghiogheny River through several eastward-flowing unnamed tributaries. This photo, taken from the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail last November, shows a distinct, milky plume of sediment pollution carried into the Yough by one of those tributaries. Photos taken on New Year’s Eve show the muddy waters of one of the Curry site tributaries, which contributed to a similar plume of sediment pollution in the Yough. (All photos are used with the permission of the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper®.)

When performing follow-up inspections to assess the companies’ compliance with its June 19 orders, W&W should make sure that the conditions on the eastern side of the Curry site are not causing or contributing to sediment pollution in the Yough through the eastward-flowing tributaries.

Having called out W&W for inaction in March, we now give a shout out to W&W for the actions it has taken – a tip of the (Pirates) cap to you, Alphonse.

But our commendation comes with a qualification: The game is not over, and there are more plays to make. Keep stepping up and catching the ball, Alphonse!

Kurt Weist is senior attorney for PennFuture and is based in Harrisburg.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Lawsuit seeks to clean up stretch of Youghiogheny River

Two anglers fly fish around huge boulders at Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania.Many residents of Pennsylvania, particularly southwestern Pennsylvania, are familiar with the beautiful Ohiopyle State Park, through which the Youghiogheny River flows. People flock to the area every year for superb white water rafting, fishing, camping, hiking and biking opportunities. Just upstream of Ohiopyle lies the Borough of Confluence, situated along the Great Allegheny Passage where Laurel Hill Creek and the Casselman River empty into the Yough. Between Confluence and Ohiopyle State Park runs one of the nicest eleven miles of trout river in all of Pennsylvania. It is at the beginning of this stretch where the Borough of Confluence discharges wastewater from its sewage treatment plant.

The Borough's sewage treatment plant is hydraulically overloaded. Two main sewer extensions that collect sewage from the town are constructed of old tile lines that allow large quantities of water from the Yough and Casselman Rivers to infiltrate into the collection system. This condition results in raw sewage bypassing treatment at the plant. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) estimates that the Borough's plant settles out only 30 percent of the solids that it should be collecting, meaning that the rest ends up in the river. Though this condition has existed for many years, neither the Authority nor the PADEP has taken action to solve the problem.

Ironically, the hydraulically overloaded treatment plant threatens the very natural resource that the Borough now seeks to use to attract economic development to the area. As suspended solids increase, a water body begins to lose its ability to support a diversity of aquatic life. Suspended solids absorb heat from sunlight, which increases water temperature and subsequently decreases levels of dissolved oxygen. Some cold water species, such as trout and stoneflies, are especially sensitive to changes in dissolved oxygen. Suspended solids can also destroy fish habitat because suspended solids settle to the bottom and can eventually blanket the river bed, smother the eggs of fish and aquatic insects, and suffocate newly-hatched insect larvae.

The Borough discharges sewage to the Yough under authority of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit issued by the PADEP. A file reviewed performed by PennFuture revealed that for the past four and one-half years, the Borough has reported more than sixty (60) violations of its NPDES Permit, equating to over five hundred (500) days of violation of the Clean Water Act and Clean Streams Law. As a result, PennFuture filed a citizen suit in Federal District Court to cease the violations. The suit seeks to require that the Authority develop and implement a plan that will correct the hydraulic overload at the plant and eventually stop untreated sewage from being dumped into this valuable natural resource. 

You can read the full Complaint that PennFuture filed in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania here.

George Jugovic, Jr. is chief counsel for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh.