The old, the filthy, and the decrepit

U.S. Steel has facilities in several locations around the Pittsburgh area, mostly along the Monongahela River, but the two major ones I see are the Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and North Braddock. These plants frighten me; they are huge, old, filthy, and decrepit. They look horrible, like something out of a nightmare.

There’s another one closer to where I live that I can’t see much of even as I drive by; the Irvin plant is hidden from my view by terrain and trees. Geographically, it lies between the other two plants. It has a sign that always offers jobs. Frankly, it scares me too, in part because of what I see of the other two, in part because I suspect the worst dangers are the ones I can’t see.

The one in Clairton belches enormous quantities of, I hope, mostly steam. The one in Braddock, a little ways downstream along the Monongahela River, never looks like anything is happening in it but I’m pretty sure such appearances are misleading. Update, February 25, 2020: I finally got a view of the one in Braddock from across the river. From that vantage point, I could see that it was pumping plenty of (like the plant in Clairton), I hope, mostly steam into the air.

Paradoxically, the plants in Clairton and Braddock are emblazoned with signs that say “CITE,” spelling out the acronym as “Continuous Improvement To Environment.”

Once again, the air near U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works has hit a Code Red, meaning particulates and ozone are in excess of 150 on the federal air quality index and deemed unhealthy for all who breathe it.

While it’s especially bad in the Mon Valley, since Saturday morning, people in Greenfield, Squirrel Hill and throughout the city have been reporting bad-smelling air on Carnegie Mellon’s Smell Pittsburgh app.

“A lot of frequent reports are saying it smells like rotten eggs, and that’s usually associated with hydrogen sulfide that is associated with burning coal of coke making,” [Matthew] Mahalik said.[1]

These plants also offer some of the few well-paying jobs for the working class in Pittsburgh. People take them, however, at no small risk to their health.

This is a pattern I’ve seen over and over: Capitalism hires bodies—not minds—and treats those bodies as expendable resources. When the bodies are broken or worn out, the people—bodies and minds together—are cast out, often with only the loosest weave of a threadbare social safety net to rely on.

That treatment bares more than a passing resemblance to how we treat dairy cows and egg-laying hens.[2]

Meanwhile, neighbors suffer the consequences, particularly around Clairton. This plant is the one I mostly hear about in the time I have been back here and it attracts national coverage.[3] Apparently both the plants in Clairton and Braddock will be covered by the settlement with Allegheny County, so improvements should be on the way,[4] but I’m not surprised that folks are skeptical.[5] Because these are the sort of facilities that, at least to my California eye, shouldn’t even exist.

But they do exist, of course, in places where poor people live, where many Black people live.

  1. [1]Andy Sheehan, “Air Quality In Mon Valley Once Again Hits Unhealthy Levels,” KDKA, February 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/02/24/mon-valley-air-quality-unhealthy-levels/
  2. [2]Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.
  3. [3]Jessi Quinn Alperin, “Clairton, PA, wants to be clear: Residents demand accountability from U.S. Steel,” Environmental Health News, May 13, 2019,
    https://www.ehn.org/clairton-coke-works-air-pollution-2636784943.html; Ollie Gratzinger, “Allegheny County issues another fine to US Steel for air pollution violation,” Pittsburgh City Paper, January 17, 2020, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/allegheny-county-issues-another-fine-to-us-steel-for-air-pollution-violation/Content?oid=16576925; KDKA, “Allegheny Co. Health Department Joins Federal Suit Against U.S. Steel,” June 18, 2019, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/06/18/allegheny-county-health-department-suit-against-us-steel/; KDKA, “‘It’s Making Clairton Sick’: Poor Air Quality Impacting Clairton, Liberty Areas,” December 23, 2019, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/12/23/air-quality-impacting-clairton-liberty-areas/; Kris Maher, “U.S. Steel Suffers New Fire Knocking Out Pollution Controls in Plant Near Pittsburgh,” Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-steel-suffers-new-fire-knocking-out-pollution-controls-in-plant-near-pittsburgh-11560795102; Andy Sheehan, “Air Quality In Mon Valley Once Again Hits Unhealthy Levels,” KDKA, February 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/02/24/mon-valley-air-quality-unhealthy-levels/; Teghan Simonton, “Health department: Air pollution in Mon Valley exceeded federal levels over Christmas,” TribLive, December 27, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/health-department-air-pollution-in-mon-valley-exceeded-federal-levels-over-christmas/
  4. [4]Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel to hold info sessions about Clairton, Braddock plant upgrades,” TribLive, January 27, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/u-s-steel-to-hold-info-sessions-about-clairton-braddock-plant-upgrades/; Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel, Allegheny County finalize Clairton Coke Works emissions settlement,” TribLive, February 10, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/u-s-steel-and-allegheny-county-finalize-clairton-coke-works-emissions-settlement/; WTAE, “U.S. Steel, health department have deal to settle 2018 air pollution violations at Clairton Coke Works,” June 28, 2019, https://www.wtae.com/article/us-steel-reaches-agreement-with-health-department-to-resolve-enforcement-orders-at-clairton-coke-works/28221648
  5. [5]Andy Sheehan, “Air Quality In Mon Valley Once Again Hits Unhealthy Levels,” KDKA, February 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/02/24/mon-valley-air-quality-unhealthy-levels/

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