‘Today is a difficult day.’ U.S. Steel announces closure of several of Clairton’s ‘dirtiest’ coke oven batteries

The company announced that it would retire three of its batteries by the first quarter of 2023, as it backed away from more than $1 billion in local investments. Pittsburgh environmentalists look forward to the air quality improvements from what U.S. Steel described as a 17% reduction in capacity in Clairton.

by Oliver Morrison

U.S. Steel announced Friday that instead of investing $1 billion in emission controls upgrades, it is planning to shut down three coke batteries at the Clairton Coke Works. It’s a move that local experts and advocates say could substantially reduce pollution in the Mon Valley and upend the region’s economic and environmental status quo.

“Today is a difficult day,” U.S. Steel CEO Dave Burritt wrote in “An Open Letter to our Pittsburgh Family.”

The now scrapped plan to modernize its Mon Valley facilities included plans for a casting and rolling facility and cogeneration power plant. In addition to improving their production process, U.S. Steel had said these investments would have reduced pollution.

In its announcement U.S. Steel put the blame for its decision on the need to reduce its carbon emissions to address climate change. But some local union leaders blamed local politicians for not supporting the company enough, while several environmental groups blamed the company for abandoning its investments entirely rather than investing in cleaner production.

Pollution from the coke works has been one of the most volatile political issues in the region, as environmentalists, regulators and politicians continually spar over how aggressively to try to bring emissions under control. The typical debate is about how to balance the health impacts, since nearby residents have unusually high asthma rates, with the potential impact on jobs and U.S. Steel profits. 

That debate continued on Friday.

“Permanently closing the three worst-polluting coke batteries at U.S. Steel’s Clairton plant will come as a huge breath of fresh air to residents in the Mon Valley and across the region,” Zach Barber, a clean air advocate for PennEnvironment, said in a Friday press release.

“This is devastating,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said in a statement. “We had the opportunity to make some of the greenest steel in the world right here in Braddock and secure the future of thousands of good paying union jobs.”

State Rep. Austin Davis said today’s announcement would hurt the Mon Valley’s economy. “I am deeply disappointed that the company has broken its promise to the Mon Valley and its own workers by scrapping a plan that would have made the Mon Valley Works the first project of its kind, provided cleaner air for our community and good jobs that would have helped this area prosper for decades,” he said in a statement.

U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

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