The state needs clean air AND good jobs – here’s my solution

The Clairton Coke Works fire in December 2018 was an accident. The negligence and reluctance to rectify issues leading up to and in wake of the fire were nothing more than a total disregard for public safety.

In addition to surpassing the exceedance threshold following the fire, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works site has been in violation of its permit and Clean Air standards many times in the past.

When exceedances occur, fines that would seem substantially large to the average business are received as a slap on the wrist to a large corporation like U.S. Steel, providing virtually no incentive to correct the problems at the facility. Fines should not simply be the cost of doing business.

It’s a game that has been played for years, but we now have an opportunity to break the cycle and put the public first with H.B. 1752.

I recently introduced this measure in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives at the urging of former Allegheny County Health Director Karen Hacker. In the aftermath of the December fire at the Clairton Coke Works, the necessity to stop emission exceedances and the importance of notifying residents of an air pollution incident in timely fashion became abundantly clear.

Encompassed in my legislation is a two-pronged approach to meet that goal: higher fines and the enactment of municipal warning systems.

As of today, Pennsylvania is well below the standard set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency in terms of fine amounts for Clean Air violations. The commonwealth currently issues $20,000 fines to corporations found to be exceeding emission thresholds, while the EPA issues a hefty $37,500 fine for the same offense. This legislation would raise the state’s fine amount to mirror the EPA’s.

Adding an additional $17,500 fine would add necessary weight to these fines – enacted solely to deter facilities from violating their permits in the first place – and provide greater incentive for corporations to invest in their facilities to avoid reoccurring violations. It will send a clear message that fines are NOT just the cost of doing business. 

In addition, requiring all major facilities to develop and maintain a municipal notification plan designed to give notice to immediate and surrounding communities in the event of an air pollution incident would put the public’s safety first. This would also demonstrate that corporations actually care about the health and safety of their neighbors.

House Bill 1752 would require notification as soon as possible and within 12 hours of the breakdown or accident, unless the risk is eliminated before notice is required. It also would establish the quickest way to notify municipalities of possible pollution risks; communicate measures for community members to undertake in order to mitigate the risk of the air pollution incident; and require yearly plan updates to ensure municipal contact procedures are up to date.

Since the December 2018 fire I have always said that we can have both clean air and family-sustaining jobs! I believe my legislation is a step in the right direction to achieving that goal!

It’s my hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle notice the positive impact this legislation could have on our state and pass it through the state House once we return to session in the fall.