PennEnvironment announced Tuesday that it has officially sent a notice letter to steel company ArcelorMittal of a potential lawsuit for its violations of the federal Clean Air Act at its Monessen coke plant in Westmoreland County.
David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, an environmental advocacy group, said the threat of a lawsuit comes after months of pollution in Monessen, Donora, Monongahela, and Carroll Township, all located in either Westmoreland or Washington counties.
“Ever since the Monessen coke plant reopened last year, local residents have had their quality of life diminished, have endured ongoing odors and soot, and have had to fear for their health and the health of their families,” he said. “This is appalling and unacceptable.”
In response, ArcelorMittal issued a statement saying it is takes their environmental performance seriously.
“In June 2015, we expedited a desulfurization system outage to improve the performance of the operation. In mid-July, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection performed an inspection and conducted visible emissions readings of the No.1 battery combustion stack, which demonstrated compliance with the opacity standards. We are committed to ensuring that the recent improvements prevent future occurrences and maintain compliance levels.”
After 5 years of inactivity, the coke plant reopened in 2014 and has violated the Clean Air Act more than 300 times, according to National Environmental Law Center Attorney Heather Govern.
“Those are violations of standards and limitations that are in place to protect these residents, and all of us, from having to breathe dangerous pollutants,” said Govern.
Violations include high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a toxic, foul-smelling gas; sulfur dioxide, a respiratory irritant and contributor to acid rain; and particulate matter. According to Josh Kratka, another NELC attorney, the plant also operated for days and weeks at a time while the primary pollution control device was out of service. Noise was also an issue for residents, he said.
The lawsuit is part of the “citizen suit” provision of the Clean Air Act, which allows private citizens or organizations to take action against potential violators, requiring a 60-day notice letter before officially filing suit. Govern said the 60-day notice will give the company time to take steps to adopt better environmental practices that would comply with the Clean Air Act and possibly avoid a lawsuit altogether.
The PA Department of Environmental Protection has cited the plant for “fugitive emissions” in the past, but residents have not seen relief, according to Viktoryia Maroz, a resident of Donora and a plaintiff on a separate class-action lawsuit filed in June seeking damages for those affected by the plant’s violations. She said the pollution near her home is unbearable, and she’s experienced health issues because of it.
“I have repeatedly voiced my concerns and complaints to DEP for over a year but nothing has been done to improve the situation,” Maroz said. “This is why this lawsuit is so important.”