The residents of Clairton, Pennsylvania are facing public health consequences of fossil fuels. So much so that the childhood asthma rate is above 22%, more than twice the state average and almost three times the national average. The town’s air quality fell below EPA safety standards for sulfur and fine particulate soot years ago and both are linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases. Clairton residents are getting sicker by the day, and the government has been doing little to nothing about it.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
A factory fire in December alerted communities of imminent pollution near two US Steel plants, one that bakes coal in 2,000-degree ovens and another that flares sulfur-laden gas 24/7. The steam clouds from the smokestacks contribute to the asthma rates being nearly triple the national average.
According to Buzzfeed, Clairton’s pollution crisis has unique political stakes, putting the US Steel industry against environmentalists and local health officials. US Steel is a chief beneficiary of Donald Trump’s steel tariffs. However, politicians of both Democrat and Republican parties know that winning the elections comes from winning the steel and coal workers. And with both sides backing US Steel, most are unwilling to do anything about the long-running pollution problem, which is disproportionately affecting young and elderly people in black communities.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Buzzfeed spoke with life-long Clairton resident, Doreen Johnson, 61, who now has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that attacks the lungs and lymph nodes, and has to carry a bag full of medication with everywhere she goes. “I haven’t been feeling well at all since this has started,” she said in reference to the coking plant fire in December.
The enormous plant was already swarming with pollution, but the fire made it dramatically worse, spewing air pollution over the town of 6,600 for months, in addition to 22 other nearby towns. Atmospheric pollution expert Andrew Presto of Carnegie Mellon University said, “That area is one of the areas with the highest air pollution in the entire country. This fire has contributed to it being even worse.”
Environmental groups intend to file a lawsuit against US Steel, while the Allegheny County Health Department has already imposed heavy fines. ACHD Deputy Director Jim Kelly said, “Not only were they violating the standards, they also grossly violating the standards.” Last week, the ACHD fined US Steel $700,000 for continued pollution from three Mon Valley factories; in addition to two fines they received last year, one in October for $600,000 and a $1 million fine last summer. That fine became the largest penalty the county has ever assessed on US Steel ever.
Democratic state Rep. Austin Davis, who represents Clairton, said, “They are a county agency fighting with a multinational corporation with every lawyer in town on retainer. I had asthma as a kid. I still have a little today… I’m sure it’s from growing up in an industrial zone.” He continued, “We want US Steel to succeed, we want the jobs. However, we also want, moving forward, for the pollution to stop. We think we can have both.”