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  • Writer's pictureQiyam Ansari

Request for Immediate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Action to Abate Benzene Emissions

Dear Administrator Ortiz: The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Breathe Project, Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab (CREATE Lab), Valley Clean Air Now, Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, PennFuture, Protect Elizabeth Township, and community members write to supplement our December 14, 2022 request that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take immediate action to abate benzene emissions and other toxic air pollution in the Monongahela River (Mon) Valley communities in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania near the U.S. Steel Clairton, Irvin Works, and Edgar Thomson plants with monitoring results for benzene during the two-week sampling periods between November 22, 2022, and January 2, 2023. The most recent monitoring results continue to show that communities near the U.S. Steel plants are exposed to unacceptably high levels of benzene.


Benzene causes a variety of serious health problems including anemia, nervous system damage, suppression of immune systems, and leukemia.1 As noted in our initial request, passive air monitors located in the community near the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) Liberty Borough monitor and the U.S. Steel plants are analyzed for benzene by Enthalpy Analytical using EPA Method 325 A/B every two weeks. See Attachment A. The two-week average benzene concentrations between November 22, 2022, and January 2, 2023, continue to show that benzene concentrations in the Mon Valley pose serious health risks for Mon Valley communities and plant workers.



Attachment B provides all two-week average concentrations recorded at each monitoring station since the project began in December of 2021. Notably, the long-term two-week average concentration at a third monitoring station on the residential property now exceeds public health thresholds for chronic exposure.


California has determined that continuous or repeated eight-hour exposures to benzene concentrations above 3 µg/m3 over several years could increase the risk of noncancerous health effects, such as damage to blood cells and a weakened immune system. In addition to Monitoring Stations 01A and 02, Monitoring Station 05 in Clairton now exceeds this threshold.



Mon Valley communities near U.S. Steel plants and plant workers are exposed to unacceptably high levels of benzene and other toxic air pollution. U.S. Steel has a long history of noncompliance with the Clean Air Act, and the adverse health risks associated with pollution from U.S. Steel plants in the Mon Valley is well documented. Most recently, the Allegheny County Health Department’s (ACHD) Liberty Borough air quality monitor recorded exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) on six days in October and November.


Hydrogen sulfide levels exceeded state standards for more than twenty days in the months of October and November. In addition to exceedances of PM2.5 and hydrogen sulfide standards at the Liberty Borough monitor, sampling conducted at residential locations near the Liberty Borough monitor and U.S. 2 Steel plants using EPA Method 325A/B since December of 20211 show that benzene concentrations in the Mon Valley community pose a risk to public health. In the month of October, two-week average benzene concentrations were as high as 16.7 µg/m3 at a monitoring station located at a residential property in Glassport, Pennsylvania. At a second home nearby, the two-week average concentration for the same period was 10.4 µg/m3. At these concentrations, residents and workers may be exposed to concentrations that can cause adverse health effects in as little as 24 hours. In addition, the average concentrations of benzene over the past year at these same two locations exceed public health thresholds for chronic exposure.


Exposure to these pollutants at these concentrations poses serious health risks for Mon Valley communities and plant workers. Benzene causes a variety of serious health problems including anemia, nervous system damage, suppression of immune systems, and leukemia.2 Particulate matter pollution has been linked to a number of health problems, including premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breath.3 Hydrogen sulfide exposure can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory system, apnea, dizziness, headaches, and weakness.4 EIP urges EPA to exercise the full extent of its investigation, enforcement, and emergency powers authorities under the Clean Air Act to take immediate action to abate benzene emissions and other toxic pollution at U.S. Steel plants and in Mon Valley communities as set forth in this letter.


I. Mon Valley Communities Face Unacceptable Health Risks from Air Pollution from U.S. Steel Plants.


The communities living near the U.S. Steel Clairton, Irvin Works, and Edgar Thomson plants are exposed to unacceptably high levels of toxic air pollution. The plants emit significant sources of highly toxic coke oven gas, benzene, particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, and other harmful pollutants. U.S. Steel has a long history of non-compliance with the Clean Air Act,5, and the adverse health risks associated with pollution from U.S. Steel plants in the Mon Valley is well documented. According to EPA data, residents in the census tracts where the Liberty Borough monitor and monitors stations 01A and 02 are located suffer a high air-pollution-related risk of cancer due to coke oven emissions and benzene.6 In fact, “[a]mong all counties in the US, urban and non-urban, Allegheny County ranks 27th in cancer risk from point source air toxic emissions, e.g., in the top 1% of all counties.”7 The Air Toxics Cancer Risk is 120 per 1 million for the area within 1.5 miles of the Liberty Borough monitor, and the area is in the 99th percentile (state) and 95-100th (national) percentile for Air Toxics Cancer Risk.8 For context, EPA estimates that the national average cancer risk from breathing air toxics is 20 per 1 million.


Nearly 90% of the point source cancer risk estimated in Allegheny County is attributable to coke oven emissions from the U.S. Steel Clairton plant.10 In addition, a study published in 2020 found that asthma rates for children living near air pollution sources in Clairton, Braddock, and other Allegheny County communities were nearly triple (22.5%) compared to the national average (8.5%).11 African American children living in these communities had the highest asthma rate (26.8%).12 Two other studies found that emissions from the operation of the Clairton plant after a 2018 fire13 resulted in negative health impacts on people in the surrounding communities.14 A University of Pittsburgh study found that the Clairton plant emitted sulfur dioxide at levels 25 times higher than normal and that asthma sufferers living within ten miles of the plant had an 80% greater risk of worse symptoms following the fire.15 A second study found that the rate of outpatient and hospital emergency department visits by people with asthma in the Clairton area nearly doubled in the months following the fire. EPA must act swiftly to protect Mon Valley communities from benzene and other toxic emissions from U.S. Steel plants.


II. PM2.5 and Hydrogen Sulfide Emissions from U.S. Steel Plants Regularly Exceeded Air Quality Standards in October and November of 2022.


In October and November of this year, levels of PM2.5 measured at the Liberty Borough monitor reached or exceeded the PM2.5 24-hour NAAQS of 35 µg/m3 on at least six days: October 11, 21, and 25 and November 22, 23, and 24.17 Hydrogen sulfide concentrations reached or exceeded the state 24-hour ambient air standard of .005 ppm (on a rolling 24-hour basis) on at least twenty-three days in October and November: October 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 24, 25, and 26 and November 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 27. 18 Unfortunately, the months of October and November are not outliers. In March of 2022, for example, ACHD issued a $1.8 million fine against U.S. Steel for more than 2,000 hydrogen sulfide hourly exceedances on 153 days between January 1, 2020, through March 1, 2022.19 U.S. Steel’s Clairton coking facility is likely the source of recent exceedances.20 Recently, ACHD analyzed exceedances of the state ambient air quality standard for hydrogen sulfide at the Liberty Borough monitor from January 1, 2020, to March 1, 2022, and concluded that the exceedances “can be attributed entirely to emissions originating at U.S. Steel’s Clairton coking facility.”


In addition, the study also found that concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter were all correlated, suggesting U.S. Steel as the source for emissions of all three pollutants at the Liberty Borough monitor.22 Coke oven emissions from the U.S. Steel plants also include benzene and many other highly toxic pollutants.23 Thus, individuals living or working in this area face unacceptable health risks from emissions associated with the U.S. Steel plants.


III. Benzene Emissions Pose a Risk to Public Health.


During the month of October, while residents were forced to endure high levels of PM2.5 and hydrogen sulfide, passive air monitors located in the community near the U.S. Steel plants recorded alarmingly high concentrations of benzene. EIP, in partnership with the Breathe Project and the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Create Lab, installed eight passive benzene monitoring stations in the Mon Valley between 0.6 and 7.25 miles away from the Clairton plant in December of 2021. Six out of the eight monitors are located within two miles of the Clairton and Irvin Works plants.24 Monitoring Station 01A and 02 in Glassport are located approximately 0.7 and 1.3 miles from the ACHD Liberty Borough monitor, respectively. The passive benzene monitoring tubes are provided and analyzed by Enthalpy Analytical using EPA Method 325A/B. The sampling tubes collect two-week average benzene concentrations and are the same tubes and methods used by refineries to monitor benzene concentrations at fencelines in accordance with federal rules. EIP also collects a blank sample every two-week period. See Attachment A for locations of monitoring stations. Between September 25, 2022, and October 25, 2022, all eight monitors in the Mon Valley recorded a new peak two-week average concentration compared to prior sampling periods.


See Attachment B for laboratory results. During October 11, 2022, to October 25, 2022 monitoring period, the average concentration of benzene at Monitoring Station 01A was 16.7 µg/m3. Monitoring Station 02 recorded a two-week average concentration of 10.4 µg/m3 for the same period. The map below shows the highest two-week average concentration recorded at each monitoring station between September 25, 2022, and October 25, 2022.


Attachment C provides all two-week average concentrations recorded at each monitoring station since the project began in December of 2021. With two-week average concentrations this high, it is possible that community members were exposed to concentrations that could have acute adverse health impacts. For example, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry’s (ATSDR) Minimal Risk Level (MRL) for benzene is 29 µg/m3. 25 The ATSDR estimates that exposure to benzene concentrations above 29 µg/m3 for as little as 24 hours can increase the risk of noncancerous health effects like a weakened immune system.26 With two-week average concentrations of 16.7 and 10.4 µg/m3, there was likely at least one day during this time frame where the daily average concentration was close to or above the ATSDR MRL.


For additional context, federal rules require refineries to take action to investigate and reduce benzene emissions where benzene concentrations exceed an annual average of 9 µg/m3. 40 C.F.R. § 63.658. Notably, this standard applies at the refinery’s fenceline as opposed to offsite and is meant to avoid the kind of residential exposures that are occurring in communities near the U.S. Steel plants. In addition, the long-term two-week average at Monitoring Station 01A and 02 are above 3 µg/m3, the California Reference Exposure Level (REL) for benzene. Monitoring Station 05 in Clairton is approaching this threshold at 2.93 µg/m3. The map below shows the long-term average benzene concentration recorded at each Monitoring Station since the project began. Take action to investigate and reduce benzene emissions where benzene concentrations exceed an annual average of 9 µg/m3. 40 C.F.R. § 63.658.

Notably, this standard applies at the refinery’s fenceline as opposed to offsite and is meant to avoid the kind of residential exposures that are occurring in communities near the U.S. Steel plants. In addition, the long-term two-week average at Monitoring Station 01A and 02 are above 3 µg/m3, the California Reference Exposure Level (REL) for benzene. Monitoring Station 05 in Clairton is approaching this threshold at 2.93 µg/m3. The map below shows the long-term average benzene concentration recorded at each Monitoring Station since the project began.


Attachment D also provides the long-term average benzene concentrations at each monitoring station. California has determined that continuous or repeated eight-hour exposures to benzene concentrations above 3 µg/m3 over several years could increase the risk of noncancerous health effects, such as damage to blood cells and a weakened immune system. Thus, in addition to the 8 significant pollutions documented by the Liberty Borough monitor, the community monitoring results show that communities near the U.S. Steel plants are exposed to unacceptably high levels of benzene and other pollution.


IV. EPA Must Take Immediate Action to Abate Benzene Emissions and Other Toxic Air Pollution.


EPA must use the full extent of its authority to take all actions necessary to reduce the Mon Valley community’s exposure to benzene and other toxic pollution. Benzene is a “hazardous air pollutant” under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act and the Allegheny County Health Department State Implementation Plan (SIP). 42 U.S.C. § 7412; Article XXI §2101.20; 66 FR 19724 (Apr. 17, 2001). The Allegheny County Health Department State Implementation Plan (SIP) prohibits emissions of benzene and other toxic pollutants unless the emissions are expressly authorized. Article XXI §2101.11; 67 FR 68935 (Nov. 14, 2002).


Here, EPA must, at a minimum, (1) inspect, investigate, and enforce any relief necessary to end and remedy potential violations from sources emitting benzene and other toxins; (2) require U.S. Steel to install and operate a robust fenceline monitoring system for benzene and other toxics at the Clairton, Irvin Works, and Edgar Thomson plants; and (3) exercise permitting oversight and authority to ensure U.S. Steel plant Clean Air Act permits to ensure compliance with the law and protect public health. EPA has the authority to inspect, investigate, and take enforcement and other actions necessary to abate air pollution. 42 U.S.C. §§ 7403, 7414. As part of EPA’s inspection, investigation, and enforcement powers, EPA has broad authority to order a plant operator, “on a one-time, periodic or continuous basis, to” install and operate monitoring equipment, perform emission tests, or sample emissions using other methods and procedures that EPA prescribes. Id. § 7414(1). Thus, EPA may require plant operators to install and operate a fenceline monitoring system for benzene and other pollutants. See id. EPA is also authorized to use emergency powers 27 under the Clean Air Act “upon receipt of evidence that a pollution source or combination of sources (including moving sources) is presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment.” 42 U.S.C. § 7603.


“Imminent” endangerment occurs when current conditions indicate threatened or potential harm, “no matter how distant the manifestation of actual harm may be.”28 For example, EPA may “act to seek abatement of emissions reasonably believed to be carcinogenic, even though it is uncertain how long it would take for the emissions to result in actual harm to the individuals.”29 A “substantial” endangerment occurs “where there is a reasonable cause for concern for public health, welfare or the environment if remedial action is not taken.”30 EPA considers several factors to determine whether an endangerment is substantial, including “the quantities of the hazardous substances involved, the nature and degree of their hazards or the potential for human or environmental exposure.


Here, the endangerment to Mon Valley community residents is beyond imminent and is substantial. As described above, residents have already been exposed to dangerously high levels of benzene, as well as other harmful air pollution above national and state air quality standards.


The endangerment is substantial because benzene concentrations in October at Monitoring Stations 01A and 02 may have been high enough at times to cause adverse health impacts after even a short-term exposure (i.e., one or several days). In addition, the average benzene concentrations over the past year at these two residential locations are high enough to cause adverse health impacts for individuals living in the area if they breathe in this polluted air over several years. Further, the potential for human or environmental exposure is high. These monitoring stations are located at homes and in the community as opposed to the fenceline of industrial property, and it is inevitable that residents located near the stations will regularly breathe air polluted by benzene emissions.


EIP urges EPA to use the full extent of its authority under the Clean Air Act to abate benzene and other toxic emissions in the Mon Valley community, including, at a minimum, the following:

  • Immediately inspect, investigate, and enforce all necessary relief to end and remedy potential violations from sources emitting benzene and other toxic emissions. EPA must inspect and investigate to assure that all appropriate enforcement action is taken to require U.S. Steel to immediately reduce benzene and other toxic emissions to reduce harmful exposure and comply with the law.


  • Require U.S. Steel to install and operate a fenceline monitoring system for benzene and other toxic air emissions. EPA should require U.S. Steel to perform fenceline monitoring at the Clairton, Irvin, and Edgar Thomson plants using the best available fenceline method, and establish a corrective action level for benzene that assures compliance with emission limits and protects public health. Fenceline monitoring programs at other industrial facilities like refineries and chemical plants have been successful in identifying otherwise hidden emissions and alerting plant operators to pollutant concentrations at property boundaries that pose a health risk to nearby communities.


  • Exercise permitting oversight and authority for sources emitting benzene and other toxic air pollution. EPA must exercise its full oversight, suspension, and prohibition authorities regarding any current or future air permits for U.S. Steel. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 7661a. The current Clean Air Act Title V permits for the Clairton and Edgar Thomson plants, for example, are expired and woefully inadequate to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act and protect public health. The Clairton Title V permit expired in 2017,33 and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has failed to issue a revised permit or deny the application within the timeline mandated by the Clean Air Act. 42 U.S.C. § 7661b(c).


  • The Edgar Thomson permit expired in 2021, and ACHD has also failed to take timely action on the renewal application for this plant. EIP and our partners filed detailed comments on the draft Title V permits for the Clairton and Edgar Thomson plants in the spring of 2022, which documented numerous deficiencies. EPA must review and strengthen all permits to ensure they include all applicable Clean Air Act requirements and require testing, monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements to assure compliance.

Conclusion For the reasons set forth above, EIP and our partners request that EPA immediately take all actions necessary to abate benzene and other toxic emissions in the Mon Valley from the U.S. Steel Clairton, Irvin, and Edgar Thomson plants. We also respectfully request to meet with EPA to discuss this request. Please contact Jen Duggan for additional information or to arrange a meeting.

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