The old, the filthy, and the decrepit

See updates through May 6, 2021, at end of post.


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.

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.


Update, February 25, 2020: I finally got a view of the Edgar Thomson Works 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.


Update, May 1, 2021: U.S. Steel, blaming permitting delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will close three of its dirtiest batteries at the Coke Works in Clairton instead of investing in an upgrade. Environmentalists welcomed the move but blamed the company, unions blamed the government, and the government insisted it had been supportive and tried to expedite the process.[6] I continue to believe the entire ugly mess should be shut down and razed.


Update, May 6, 2021: Environmental Health News (EHN) has a story[7] about U.S. Steel’s decision to shut down three of the worst-polluting coke batteries at its Clairton Works rather than fulfill a promise to upgrade them to be more environmentally friendly.[8]

Unlike the previous coverage which buried this information much further down in the story,[9] EHN’s story highlights that U.S. Steel will instead invest in a nonunion plant in Arkansas. The story cites a litany of broken promises[10] in a region where U.S. Steel’s operations in Clairton and Braddock are an ongoing principal cause of air pollution and associated health problems.[11] It’s a lengthy—very lengthy—history,[12] which only reinforces my conviction that U.S. Steel cannot be trusted, the plants should close, the facilities should be razed, and replaced with something of actual benefit to local residents who now bear the brunt of health risks.[13]

A narrative is apparent in all of this that pits jobs, some of which will be lost in Pittsburgh, against the environment. But what I notice as an Uber and Lyft driver is not that Braddock residents work at the Edgar Thomson Works or that Clairton residents work at the Clairton Works. The workers at these plants live—and raise their families—well away from these major sources of air pollution. They don’t even live in the Monongahela River Valley (“Mon Valley”) that hosts both these plants and the Irvin plant in West Mifflin. It’s the poor in surrounding communities who bear the brunt of this pollution.[14] So what’s missing from this narrative is a pitting, really, of the poor, mostly of color, against labor.

That we don’t talk about the latter doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Or that it isn’t just how the elites like it.[15]

  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,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 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,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 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,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 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/
  6. [6]Oliver Morrison, “‘Today is a difficult day.’ U.S. Steel announces closure of several of Clairton’s ‘dirtiest’ coke oven batteries,” Public Source, April 30, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/mon-valley-clairton-us-steel-coke-works-pollution-f-grade-air-quality/
  7. [7]Kristina Marusic, “U.S. Steel abandons clean tech plans in Pittsburgh region following damning health study,” Environmental Health News, May 6, 2021, https://www.ehn.org/us-steel-pittsburgh-pollution-asthma-2652882219/residents-at-risk-and-in-the-dark
  8. [8]Oliver Morrison, “‘Today is a difficult day.’ U.S. Steel announces closure of several of Clairton’s ‘dirtiest’ coke oven batteries,” Public Source, April 30, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/mon-valley-clairton-us-steel-coke-works-pollution-f-grade-air-quality/
  9. [9]Oliver Morrison, “‘Today is a difficult day.’ U.S. Steel announces closure of several of Clairton’s ‘dirtiest’ coke oven batteries,” Public Source, April 30, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/mon-valley-clairton-us-steel-coke-works-pollution-f-grade-air-quality/
  10. [10]Kristina Marusic, “U.S. Steel abandons clean tech plans in Pittsburgh region following damning health study,” Environmental Health News, May 6, 2021, https://www.ehn.org/us-steel-pittsburgh-pollution-asthma-2652882219/residents-at-risk-and-in-the-dark
  11. [11]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/; Hannah Lynn, “Report: Pittsburgh ranked 8th worst for air pollution among US cities,” Pittsburgh City Paper, April 22, 2020, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/report-pittsburgh-ranked-8th-worst-for-air-pollution-among-us-cities/Content?oid=17179037; Kris Maher, “Pittsburgh Breathes Easier After Repairs at U.S. Steel Coke Plant,” Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pittsburgh-breathes-easier-after-repairs-at-u-s-steel-coke-plant-11558872000; 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; Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel facing a 2nd federal lawsuit tied to December fire at Clairton Plant,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 26, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/u-s-steel-facing-a-2nd-federal-lawsuit-tied-to-december-fire-at-clairton-plant/; Jamie Martines, “Settlement over bad air in Clairton calls for U.S. Steel to cough up $2 million,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 11, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/settlement-over-bad-air-in-clairton-calls-for-u-s-steel-to-cough-up-2-million/; Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel to hold info sessions about Clairton, Braddock plant upgrades,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 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,” Tribune-Review, February 10, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/u-s-steel-and-allegheny-county-finalize-clairton-coke-works-emissions-settlement/; Kristina Marusic, “Pittsburgh’s air quality continues to decline, new report finds,” Environmental Health News, April 24, 2019, https://www.ehn.org/pittsburghs-air-quality-continues-to-decline-new-report-finds-2635280543.html; Kristina Marusic, “Pittsburgh’s air was unsafe to breathe for 3 months in 2018,” Environmental Health News, January 28, 2020, https://www.ehn.org/pittsburgh-air-pollution-unsafe-2644931105.html; Kristina Marusic, “Environmental injustice in Pittsburgh: Poor, minority neighborhoods see higher rates of deaths from air pollution,” Environmental Health News, June 12, 2020, https://www.ehn.org/environmental-injustice-pittsburgh-air-pollution-2646169635.html; Oliver Morrison, “Mon Valley air was the healthiest it’s ever been in 2020; region still receives an ‘F’ grade,” Public Source, April 21, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/2020-pittsburgh-air-pollution-allegheny-county-clairton-steel/; 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,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 27, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/health-department-air-pollution-in-mon-valley-exceeded-federal-levels-over-christmas/; 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; WTAE, “Allegheny Co. Health Department announces fines against U.S. Steel for violations at Clairton Coke Works,” May 28, 2020, https://www.wtae.com/article/allegheny-co-health-department-announces-fines-against-us-steel-for-violations-at-clairton-coke-works/32702736
  12. [12]Kristina Marusic, “U.S. Steel abandons clean tech plans in Pittsburgh region following damning health study,” Environmental Health News, May 6, 2021, https://www.ehn.org/us-steel-pittsburgh-pollution-asthma-2652882219/residents-at-risk-and-in-the-dark
  13. [13]David Benfell, “The old, the filthy, and the decrepit,” Not Housebroken, May 1, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/02/25/the-old-the-filthy-and-the-decrepit/
  14. [14]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/; Jamie Martines, “Settlement over bad air in Clairton calls for U.S. Steel to cough up $2 million,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 11, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/settlement-over-bad-air-in-clairton-calls-for-u-s-steel-to-cough-up-2-million/; Kristina Marusic, “Environmental injustice in Pittsburgh: Poor, minority neighborhoods see higher rates of deaths from air pollution,” Environmental Health News, June 12, 2020, https://www.ehn.org/environmental-injustice-pittsburgh-air-pollution-2646169635.html; Oliver Morrison, “Mon Valley air was the healthiest it’s ever been in 2020; region still receives an ‘F’ grade,” Public Source, April 21, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/2020-pittsburgh-air-pollution-allegheny-county-clairton-steel/; 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,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 27, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/health-department-air-pollution-in-mon-valley-exceeded-federal-levels-over-christmas/
  15. [15]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/

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