Here are articles, videos, and details about the fire (some call it an explosion) at Clairton Coke Works, listed in rough chronological order. If you see something missing or incorrect, please send a comment to me here: https://inversiondoc.com/contact/.
The Clean Air Council has also released an excellent and comprehensive timeline of events surrounding the events at Clairton Coke Works at http://pacokeovens.org/news/ . It is definitely worth a look. I wish I had looked at it prior to creating this timeline… but now we have two timelines with some overlapping content and some unique content in each.
December 24, 2018
The Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) announced it on Facebook that same day, but no other formal notice was given to the community setting the stage for extreme community frustration once the scope of the problems emerged over the coming weeks:
“We were notified that there was a fire this morning at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works at one of the gas dispatcher’s stations. The fire was put out by 9 a.m. but it affected two of the stations that direct the coke oven gas.
US Steel is working on fixing the issue. In the interim, we have not seen any exceedance through noon today. While we do not expect any air quality problems, ACHD will be monitoring air quality closely.”
December 26, 2018
The Liberty monitor showed two SO2 exceedances today.
December 28, 2018
The Liberty monitor showed one SO2 exceedance today.
January 2, 2019
The Liberty monitor showed one SO2 exceedance today.
January 3, 2019
The Liberty monitor showed one SO2 exceedance today.
January 7, 2019
The North Braddock monitor showed one SO2 exceedance today.
January 8, 2019
The Liberty monitor showed two SO2 exceedances today.
January 9, 2019
The ACHD made the following announcement on Facebook at 10:00 AM:
A December 24 fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works damaged two gas dispatcher stations and has resulted in several exceedances of the federal standards for hourly SO2 (sulfur dioxide) emissions.
Officials from the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) are having ongoing conversations with plant officials about their efforts to address emissions and have required additional mitigation strategies.
Mon Valley residents, particularly those with existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, children and the elderly, are being encouraged to limit outdoor activities until further notice. Read more:http://bit.ly/2CXB3zR
January 10, 2019
The ACHD made the following announcement:
In order to better inform the public, Dr. Karen Hacker, Director of the Allegheny County Health Department, released the following information related to a December 24 fire at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and air quality issues since that time: http://bit.ly/2RF5RO9
January 11, 2019
The ACHD begins daily notices about whether there were any exceedances of the federal SO2 standard. Here is the full message:
Until the Clairton Coke Works plant is running under normal operations again, ACHD will notify the public at 3 p.m. each day if there were any exceedances of the federal SO2 standard. In the event of an exceedance, updates may be posted more often.
In the past 24 hours, the hourly data from the Liberty air quality monitor showed no exceedances of the federal SO2 standard, which is .075 ppm. There have been no exceedances since Tuesday, January 8.
To review the data yourself, visit (http://bit.ly/2M7s1mN) select the Hourly Air Quality Data link and scroll through the resulting document to the pages titled as “Liberty,” and look for the SO2 column. The reports contain one week of data on each monitor.
January 14, 2019
According to the Allegheny County Health Department’s data, the air monitor closest to the plant detected sulfur dioxide at 145 parts per billion (ppb) on December 28—nearly double the maximum hourly safety threshold of 75 ppb.
Respiratory irritation from sulfur dioxide exposure induces symptoms such as sneezing, sore throat, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and a feeling of suffocation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the levels caused by the Clairton fire, those most at risk are people with chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma and COPD, those with heart disease, children, and the elderly.
January 15, 2019
Dr. Deborah Gentile found five of 14 Clairton High School students participating in asthma clinic exams on Monday were experiencing decreased lung function at a time of the year when such aggravated breathing problems do not usually occur.
Dr. Gentile said there appears to be a link between five students with aggravated asthma conditions and the six violations of federal sulfur dioxide standards by the coke works in the two weeks following the fire.
January 16, 2019
The ACHD posted the following update via Facebook:
ACHD Director, Dr. Karen Hacker, issued the following update regarding repairs to the Clairton Coke Works and air quality in the Mon Valley: http://bit.ly/2svQqcP
Until repairs are completed at the Clairton Coke Works, we will provide daily updates at 3 p.m. related to information coming from the air quality monitors and a weekly update, such as this. Should there be any changes to information, or exceedances, information will be provided at that time.
All updates will be posted on the ACHD website (http://bit.ly/AQAlertMonValley) and Facebook page. We have also begun to use the county’s Allegheny Alerts (http://www.alleghenycounty.us/alerts) system more proactively.
Residents and interested parties can sign-up to get notifications about a variety of information from the county. By creating an account, individuals can choose how to be notified of information (text, phone call, email, etc.) and where (home, office, cell). Alerts related to this specific incident are being sent out to those individuals who register to receive general Health Department updates and air quality updates.
The ACHD also posted this update today:
Our Air Quality Program meteorologist has projected Thursday, January 17, to be a poor air dispersion day across Allegheny County. This means that the predicted weather conditions could result in increased pollution levels.
With these conditions, there is a potential for SO2 and PM 2.5 exceedances, and residents, particularly those with existing respiratory conditions may need to limit their outdoor activities.
January 18, 2019
The ACHD posts to Facebook: “Our Air Quality Program meteorologist has projected Saturday, January 19, to be a poor air dispersion day across Allegheny County.”
January 19, 2019
Breathe Project Update about Clairton Coke Works Fire and Air Quality Issues: Matt Mehalik from the Breathe Project gives an update about the Clairton Coke Works fire and resultant air quality problems. He also announces two upcoming events: a community meeting on Tuesday in Clairton and a press conference on Wednesday.
The ACHD posted the following update to Facebook: “US Steel recently notified AHCD that it will be posting updates of its mitigation strategies and repairs at the Clairton Coke Works on its website at: https://www.ussteel.com/newsroom. The addition of this public update is appreciated, but will not change our communication efforts. We will continue to provide daily 3 PM updates on air quality, additional updates on emergent issues, and a weekly update until such time that the repair work is completed and the facility is operating under normal conditions.”
January 21, 2019
The ACHD posted the following to Facebook, “Our Air Quality Program meteorologist has projected Tuesday, January 22, to be a poor air dispersion day across Allegheny County.”
January 22, 2019
US Steel Clairton Plant – City of Clairton – “Situational Awareness Meeting” (Re: Clairton Coke Works fire on 12/24/18)
This meeting on 1/22/19 addresses issues related to the fire accident at Clairton Coke Works that took place on 12/24/18. Photos I took at the event showing some of the technical and damage slides can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/InversionDoc/photos/?tab=album&album_id=611368075963602
Press about this event included an article posted 1/23/19 by Reid Frazier in StateImpact:
Many residents said they heard about the fire about two weeks after it happened, on Jan. 9, when the Allegheny County Health Department issued an air quality warning – after levels of sulfur dioxide in the area exceeded federal health standards several times. One of those surprised by the news was the mayor of Clairton, Rich Lattanzi. He only heard about the fire when the county issued its warning. He said as the mayor of the town, he should have been kept informed.
The ACHD posted the following to Facebook: “Our Air Quality Program meteorologist has projected Wednesday, January 23, to be a poor air dispersion day across Allegheny County. ”
January 23, 2019
Citizens hosted a press conference to publicly raise concerns about the Clairton fire and call for a hot idle of the facility. Here is a video of the live stream from that event:
PA State Rep. Summer Lee speaks out in support of clean air at the Breathe Collaborative’s press conference today. Many community residents and clean air advocates spoke out about the Dec. 24 fire at Clairton Coke Works and related air quality issues.
The ACHD posted the following update via Facebook: “ACHD Director, Dr. Karen Hacker, issued the following update regarding repairs to the Clairton Coke Works and air quality in the Mon Valley: http://bit.ly/2Wdzg1h”
The ACHD then proceeded to post the following videos to Facebook. It seemed the videos were created in direct response to the community press conference earlier that day (as seen in the previous videos today):
Earlier this evening, Dr. Karen Hacker, ACHD Director, addressed questions and concerns that were raised at last night’s informational session and today’s press conference in Clairton. In this clip, Dr. Hacker talks about SO2 exceedances, and in the event of future exceedances, ACHD would certainly consider enforcement that coke batteries be put into hot idle at the Clairton Coke Works.
In this clip, Dr. Hacker talks about notifying and communicating with the public following the December 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works.
In this clip, Dr. Hacker talks about communicating with the public, community leaders and advocates, the current enforcement actions against US Steel, and working with elected officials to potentially strengthen ACHD’s enforcement actions against polluters.
Dr. Hacker concludes with a reminder to the public that ACHD is committed to improving air quality in the county and holding industries accountable.
January 24, 2019
According to the Post-Gazette, on an earnings call today:
“U.S. Steel CEO David Burritt called the fire an “unfortunate incident” that the company wants to resolve quickly.”
January 30, 2019
U.S. Steel expects to pay at least $40 million to repair damage caused by a mechanical fire at its coke plant in Clairton that triggered an air quality alert from Allegheny County health officials, the Pittsburgh steelmaker has told investors.
January 31, 2019
Between $15 million and $20 million will be related to physical repair costs, U.S. Steel Chief Financial Officer Kevin Bradley told investors Thursday. “The bulk of the remainder is the natural gas purchase cost in lieu of the coke oven gases we would have been utilizing,” Bradley said.
February 2, 2019
The ACHD shared on Facebook:
Yesterday we advised that there may be concerns with air quality due to poor air dispersion, which holds pollutants close to the ground. Currently, we are seeing elevated numbers of PM 2.5 across the county. We predict that these values will decrease throughout the day; however, there is the possibility that there will be exceedances of the 24-hour federal PM 2.5 standard at several monitoring locations across the county.
February 3, 2019
Today was one of the foulest-smelling days in recent Pittsburgh history (with a strong sulfurous, acrid, industrial smell). Over 300 Smell Pittsburgh app complaints were submitted this day alone. Over 1000 complaints were submitted during the six-day weather event (characterized by strong inversions) from Feb. 2 through Feb. 7. This was more than double the count of any previous 6-day period since the app was created in 2016. Complaints are visible to the public and can be viewed/downloaded at the Smell Pittsburgh website here.
February 4, 2019
The North Braddock monitor showed one SO2 exceedance today (A reading of .082 ppm recorded. Federal SO2 standard is .075 ppm).
The SmellPGH app once again showed an extraordinary number of complaints. Note that one or more people who appear to be inside the Clairton Coke Works submitted a number of green “smells fine” reports (at the bottom of the map).
The ACHD released the following information on Facebook today:
We have a received a variety of inquiries related to air quality in our region. Whether residents are paying more attention to alerts provided by ACHD, or due to the notifications on smart phone weather apps, there is a heightened interest in what’s going on.
Jim Kelly, ACHD’s Deputy Director for Environmental Health, offered this explanation for what the public is seeing (and smelling):
“Under the influence of a high-pressure system, Allegheny County experienced multiple strong surface temperature inversions Saturday morning, Sunday morning, and Monday morning. This is very unusual, and seems to have impacted a large region, including western Ohio and central and eastern Pennsylvania.
“Weather applications on cell phones are and were reporting unhealthy air in regions as disperse as Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. This information comes from AirNow.gov and is generally reported regionally and based on predictions of recent trends. It is not actually reporting current data from our monitors. Currently, air quality at the Liberty monitor is good as per our continuous monitoring.
“Please be aware that the surface inversion on Saturday dissipated around 10:30 a.m., the surface inversion on Sunday dissipated around 1:30 p.m. and the surface inversion on Monday dissipated around 1 p.m. The pollutant of concern is PM 2.5 (there have been no SO2 exceedances) which is emitted from multiple sources that burn fossil fuels, including US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, automobiles, and all other sources of combustion. During these types of inversions, it is impossible to distinguish a soul source of pollutants.
“Our PM 2.5 State Implementation Plan will be submitted this summer, which will address exceedances of PM 2.5. In addition, current enforcement efforts against US Steel are geared to dealing with reduction of emission violations.”
February 6, 2019
The ACHD made this announcement on Facebook:
Health Department Director, Dr. Karen Hacker, provided the following information related to air quality in the Mon Valley and the status of the Clairton Coke Works over the past week: http://bit.ly/2WNWQ4T
The document in the link includes a range of information about weather, inversions, pollution exceedances, and other details. One key summary was about the exceedances:
• With Monday’s exceedance at the North Braddock monitor, there have been a total of nine (9) hourly SO2 exceedances at all monitors serving the Mon Valley since the December 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works:
– Liberty monitor: 7 (two on 12/26, one on 12/28, one on 1/2, one on 1/3 and two on 1/8)
– North Braddock monitor: 2 (one on 1/7 and one on 2/4)
– Clairton monitor: 0
Please note that for EPA reporting purposes, it is considered only one exceedance even if there are multiple hourly exceedances in a 24-hour period. Exceedances are based on any given monitor in a calendar year. Therefore, based on EPA reporting criteria, Liberty has exceeded five times and North Braddock has exceeded twice in since the December 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works.
• ACHD staff are continuing to review the data regarding Monday’s SO2 exceedance at the North Braddock monitor. An enforcement action is forthcoming.
• ACHD received several questions regarding the Air Quality Index (AQI) this past week because of alerts that showed on smart phones in the area. The AQI measures how clean or polluted the air is, and what associated health effects might be of concern. While the AQI is a helpful tool, it is based on PM 2.5 and ozone, which are regional pollutants, and numbers are based on projections and recent trends. The AQI is not actually reporting the most current data from ACHD monitors, and it is not based on SO2.
February 7, 2019
Matt Mehalik, Executive Director of the Breathe Project gave a strong testimony at the hearing on Feb. 7, 2019, by PA State Senators re: air quality after the devastating fire at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. From his testimony, Matt states, “Approximately 130,000 people live within a five mile radius of the coke works. People in this area have air that’s worse than 91% of the entire country for particulate matter.” Learn more about him at https://breatheproject.org/ . (Facebook video)
Ashleigh Deemer, the Western PA Director of Penn Environment, spoke out about air quality concerns following the fire at Clairton Coke Works. Just a few days later, her organization (along with Clean Air Council and some community members) announced their intention to sue US Steel for air quality violations. Deemer notes in the that announcement, “For far too long, the Mon Valley Works has put residents’ health at risk,” said Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s Western Pennsylvania Director. “We’re sending a clear message to U.S. Steel and all other polluters: We won’t let you run roughshod over cornerstone environmental laws and put our communities at risk.” https://pennenvironment.org/news/pae/pennenvironment-clean-air-council-will-sue-us-steel-clean-air-act-violations-mon-valley (Facebook video)
Dr. Deborah Gentile shared a potent testimony at the recent PA Senate Air Quality Hearing on Feb. 7, 2019. She is studying children at a few sites in the region of Allegheny County, and found that a sample of students in Clairton experienced a decrease of lung function after the fire at Clairton Coke Works. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the following: “Dr. Deborah Gentile found five of 14 Clairton High School students participating in asthma clinic exams on Monday were experiencing decreased lung function at a time of the year when such aggravated breathing problems do not usually occur.
Dr. Gentile said there appears to be a link between five students with aggravated asthma conditions and the six violations of federal sulfur dioxide standards by the coke works in the two weeks following the fire.
“Of course the sample size is small and we can’t 100 percent prove a link, but facts are facts and I do think there is a link,” said the doctor whose school-based clinic has been operating for five years.”
Rachel Filippini at GASP gave an incredibly relevant and powerful testimony at the recent PA Senate Air Quality Hearing on Feb. 7, 2019. Watch it (or read it at the link below) to get a quick sense of the history of air quality efforts in the region over the group’s 50 year history. She includes stunning quotes like this, “While some industries struggle with compliance from time to time, the County Health Department, EPA, and US Steel have been engaged in court battles or settlement negotiations continually for the past 48 years. Major settlements with US Steel occurred in 1979, 1993, 2007, 2008, 2014, and 2016. According to the ACHD, after the 2016 judgement, emissions from the plant actually got worse. Overall compliance with local air laws declined from 94% in 2014 to just 75% last year. What would happen if everyone obeyed red lights 75% of the time?” Full testimony at: https://gasp-pgh.org/wp-content/uploads/Joint-PA-Senate-and-House-Democratic-Policy-Committe-Air-Quality-hearing-GASP-comments-1.pdf (Facebook video)
The full hearing can be found on YouTube thanks to Cineplex Rex:
Residents and employees of U.S. Steel filled council chambers in Clairton to listen as lawmakers, representatives from Clairton Coke Works and the Allegheny County Health Department discussed air quality concerns in the Mon Valley. Meanwhile, repairs continue at Clairton Coke Works after a fire in a control room inside the plant in December. Many of those who showed up to the hearing, could not fit inside the room and instead filled the hallway and the steps outside.
The ACHD posted the following information about its testimony at today’s hearing:
The Health Department provided the following testimony to the joint Senate and House Democratic Policy Committee during a hearing on improving air quality held yesterday, February 7, at the Clairton Municipal Building: http://bit.ly/2GfwML7.
To view the PowerPoint slides presented at the hearing, visit:http://bit.ly/2E1lAzt
The BreatheProject posted the following press release about the day’s hearing: Mon Valley Residents Overlooked During Public Hearing on Air Quality in Clairton
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Feb 7, 2019
Contact: Debra Smit, 412-760-7677
Mon Valley Residents Overlooked During Public Hearing on Air Quality in Clairton
Clairton, Pa. –
While environmental advocates in Allegheny County welcomed the opportunity to address the region’s ongoing poor air quality and pollution problems at the U.S. Steel Clairton Plant at the “Improving Air Quality” hearing held by the Joint Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday, the hearing failed in giving the people of the Mon Valley an opportunity to speak.
Local elected officials, as the ultimate protectors of the health of the people of Allegheny County, should not allow industries to create higher cancer risks, higher respiratory and cardiovascular disease rates, higher rates of asthma and deny local citizens their right to clean air. When this happens, they should listen to the voices of suffering of the residents living in close proximity to the polluting facilities in this community.
“I have an issue with a public meeting that doesn’t invite the residents of the community to speak,” said Miriam Maletta, a life-long resident of Clairton who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma and whose family has suffered from cancer, asthma and respiratory issues through the years. “Why are we being excluded? What are they trying to hide? We are concerned for our health.” Pollution from the Clairton Coke Works affects a large number of people, particularly many low income, elderly and African American people. Some residents expressed a desire to attend today but due to work obligations could not go to the noontime meeting. Others expressed fear of repercussions in their community if they speak out.
“We applaud elected officials for organizing this hearing and acknowledging U.S. Steel’s broken promises to the communities in the Mon Valley,” said Geoff Bland, air quality organizer with Clean Water Action. “But the focus now must now be on the 130,000 residents living within 5 miles of the Clairton Coke Works, communities that struggle with poor air quality on a daily basis who must be at the forefront of solutions to this crisis.”
“We must find less impactful ways to meet the needs of our society without creating the damage that comes from operating a plant in the way that the Clairton Coke Works operates,” said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project. “I believe that innovation and creativity should become the bedrock of our regional economy, not 19th Century production and pollution control Band-Aids.”
February 8, 2019
I went down to Glassport to film the massive flares at Irvin Works that US Steel is using to “dilute” the highly polluting coke gas coming from Clairton Coke Works.
If you ever wondered how big the flares are that U.S. Steel is using to vent pollutants while they fix Clairton Coke Works, here are some shots of the flares at Irvin Works. They are huge (75ft between outer bases) and roar across the valley. I also smelled foul industrial odors most of the time I was there, and one man drove by and said that people with asthma in the area were having a tough time breathing.
Here are a few photos (CC-BY) of the flares. Feel free to use them w/ attribution to Mark Dixon via Flickr. Full album here.
Legislators said they want to better communication and collaboration from U.S. Steel. Several expressed disappointment that it took two weeks between the fire on Dec. 24 and a notice from the Allegheny County Health Department on Jan. 9 letting the public know about air quality concerns. Lawmakers themselves were in the dark.
February 13, 2019
PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council announce intent to sue US Steel:
PITTSBURGH — PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council announced today they plan to sue U.S. Steel Corporation over continuing noncompliance with the federal Clean Air Act. The legal action focuses on the company’s Pittsburgh-area facilities — Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Steel Mill and Edgar Thomson Plant. They are part of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works integrated steel making operation.
“Living near the plants, we can tell air quality has gotten worse since the fire,” said Clairton resident Johnie Perryman. “We don’t want to be told to stay inside, we want the pollution to stop. We need strong action to clean up the air we breathe every day.”
February 15, 2019
“This is a facility that sustained an enormous amount of damage from what was a gigantic fire,” Mr. Fetterman said at a rain-sprinkled news conference in the parking lot of the coke works’ State Street gate after his private tour. “It needs to be rebuilt to the highest environmental standards and that’s the commitment.”
Mr. Rhodes said that while the repairs are underway, the company is flaring 60 to 65 percent of the coke oven gas normally used to heat operations at Clairton, Edgar Thomson and Irvin, three plants collectively known as the U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works.
February 20, 2019
The Borough of Forest Hills votes to support cleaner air.
On February 20, 2019, Forest Hills Borough Council voted unanimously (with one abstention) to support the Allegheny County Health Department’s recent recommendations for additional tools and resources to achieve better regional air quality. Will other local governments do the same? Please like and share if you want YOUR local government to support the ACHD’s request for additional tools to clean our air! Kudos to Patricia DeMarco for working to make this happen. Read all the details at https://patriciademarco.com/2019/02/21/clairton-coke-works-an-air-quality-challenge/ .
February 25, 2019
The ACHD posted the following update to Facebook:
An additional air quality monitor that will measure SO2 emissions from the flares at US Steel’s Irvin Works has been installed at the New Emerson Elementary School in West Mifflin. The hourly data from this West Mifflin monitor is available on our website (http://bit.ly/2sMOugo), and this monitor will be included in our daily SO2 status update.
The BreatheProject posted a press release: Allegheny County Health Dept. Needs More Direct Dialog with Mon Valley Residents. Residents Continue to Demand Compliance on Clean Air Requirements
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Feb. 25, 2019
Contact: Debra Smit, 412-760-7677
Allegheny County Health Dept. Needs More Direct Dialog with Mon Valley Residents.
Residents Continue to Demand Compliance on Clean Air Requirements
This morning, WESA 90.5’s “The Confluence” featured Dr. Karen Hacker (link to article/recording), who provided ACHD’s perspective on the ongoing Clairton Coke Works’ situation. Her remarks continued to omit ongoing, documented concerns of Mon Valley residents about the Clairton Coke Work’s continuously emitting large quantities of undesulfurized coking gas into the Mon Valley with related negative community impacts. The emissions have continued unabated for two months and one day.
Here are some constructive recommendations for ACHD to consider in its ongoing communications with Allegheny County residents, especially in the Mon Valley:
– ACHD should acknowledge the concerns of residents living in the Mon Valley,
Clairton and the East End Pittsburgh about this ongoing situation, not just
emphasizing dialog with U.S. Steel.
– ACHD should articulate specifically what its options are for taking action on
behalf of the community and avoiding anodyne phrases such as “we are keeping
our options open.”
– ACHD should acknowledge that the Clairton Coke Works has been dumping
undesulfurized coking gas into the county’s atmosphere through massive flares
located near the U.S. Steel Irvin works continuously for two months.
– ACHD should emphasize that operating without desulfurization equipment is
illegal according to what is specified in the Clairton Coke Work’s Title V permit
and that the facility is therefore out of compliance with the Clean Air Act.
– ACHD should emphasize that it has the authority to take action under Article 21 – and avoid using empty language such as “legal defensibility” as an excuse for inaction.
– ACHD’s should not pursue low bar comparisons of Allegheny County’s bad air as a marker of progress and should use science and data about our airshed, such as:
– Our airshed’s problems are not just with one monitor
– There were 10 PM 2.5 monitors in the Pittsburgh airshed with a valid annual 2015-17 daily value out of 775 monitors nationwide
– Three of ten sites were in the worst tenth percentile Another five in the worst 20%. The ‘best’ site was the 51st percentile
– ACHD should acknowledge that U.S. Steel’s “plan” to bring the Clairton Coke Works into compliance 70% by mid-May has no meaning, as the 70% figure is unclear. The plant is either in compliance or it is not.
“The Allegheny County Health Dept. leadership needs to speak from facts, data,
science, and from the perspective of protecting the health of county residents,” said
Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project.
“Residents continue to feel that their voices are not being heard. It is for this reason
that residents continue to call for ACHD to put the Clairton Coke Works’s old and
leaking batteries into hot idle unless another solution can be found that brings the plant into compliance by not permitting the open burning of undesulfurized coking gas in flares and polluting the region’s airshed.”
February 26, 2019
The ACHD posted the following information on Facebook:
The Health Department’s post-hearing brief regarding US Steel’s appeal of ACHD’s enforcement order and civil penalty is now available on our website (http://bit.ly/2H3YMkD). US Steel’s post-hearing brief is due March 7. For more information on the Health Department’s legal matters with US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, visit: http://bit.ly/2H2jnWh
The ACHD also posted this update:
Due to power outages, data from the Avalon monitor and from the Liberty Monitor which measures particulate matter is not being reported to the Health Department. ACHD staff is currently working to restore power back to these monitors. There will be a loss of data at these monitors as there is no measuring during a loss of power. Please note that the Health Department is receiving data from the main Liberty monitor, which measures SO2.
February 28, 2019
The ACHD announced this enforcement action on Facebook:
ACHD has issued an enforcement order against U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works facilities (Edgar Thompson Plant, Irvin Plant and Clairton Coke Works) for continued Article XXI permit violations for daily sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions after a December 24 fire occurred at the Clairton Coke Works.
Per the order (http://bit.ly/2TrsHtk), U.S. Steel must reduce its use of coke oven gas and its daily SO2 emissions across all Mon Valley facilities, including the Peachtree flare at the Irvin Plant, until the repairs at the Clairton Coke Works are complete, or by June 30, 2019, whichever comes later.
The Health Department has given U.S. Steel mitigation options, and U.S. Steel must notify ACHD of its decision within five (5) days and will also be required to provide weekly data demonstrating compliance. Read more:http://bit.ly/2Szb9qK
The BreatheProject posted a press release in response to the announcement.
It is important to note that ACHD found that U.S. Steel’s plants were emitting more than 74,000 pounds of SO2 into the atmosphere according to data collected on January 29, 2019. This amount was more than 5 and a half times above their legal maximum limit. At the Peachtree flare, U.S. Steel emitted more than 20 tons of SO2 into the atmosphere on that day. It is highly probable that these emission levels have continued during the last two months.
“This enforcement action is a welcome and increased show of force by the Allegheny County Health Department,” said Geoff Bland, community organizer for Clean Water Action. “Unfortunately for residents it looks as if emissions from the Coke Works have been far worse than ACHD has been letting on.”
The enforcement action was widely covered in the news:
The order requires the facilities — which include Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock and Irvin Plant in West Mifflin — to choose among reducing the volume of coal in each coke oven, further extending coking times or putting coke oven batteries in “hot idle” status, according to the order.
The Allegheny County Health Department says coke oven gas and sulfur dioxide emissions from three U.S. Steel facilities in the Mon Valley are endangering public health.
“Data provided to us since the exceedance at the North Braddock monitor showed that the amount of SO2 being emitted daily from these three facilities far exceeds what is allotted in the individual Title V operating permits. It also provided further evidence of elevated SO2 beyond what is being identified at our monitors,” Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly said in a statement.
The Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Plant had disabled the plant’s coke gas processing operations and emissions increased.
March 1, 2019
The ACHD announced that US Steel appealed the Feb. 28 enforcement order:
On Friday, March 1, US Steel appealed (http://bit.ly/2Hd3Lzu) ACHD’s February 28 enforcement order. The company also petitioned for a stay; a temporary stay (http://bit.ly/2HaP146) was granted by the Hearing Officer which will remain in effect through March 11.
The order for the temporary stay outlines next steps, but key dates include a March 7 deadline for US Steel to provide a written response as to why the company cannot meet the terms of the enforcement order. ACHD will have until March 11 to respond to that explanation.
We will continue to provide additional information on this matter as it becomes available.
March 4, 2019
Feeling the intense public pressure about the pollution coming from their Mon Works, US Steel Executives write an OpEd that is published by the Post-Gazette. They stressed how much they are working to fix the facility. What they didn’t mention was that their emissions since the fire are persistently illegal. They built a polluting facility that was regularly breaking the law before the accident. When the fire made that pollution worse, they still can’t find the nerve to shut down the facility, even when it puts the health of residents at risk.
U.S. Steel is devoting every resource to the mitigation and repair efforts underway, which offer our neighbors the best and fastest outcome from the unfortunately limited options available.
Sara A. Greenstein serves as senior vice president of consumer solutions at U.S. Steel and has executive responsibility for the company’s Mon Valley Works operations. Thomas M. Conway serves as international vice president of the United Steelworkers Union, headquartered in Pittsburgh.
March 6, 2019
ACHD Board Meeting: Citizens and air quality advocates spoke out about their concerns related to the fire at Clairton Coke Works.
Matt Mehalik from the Breathe Project explains that SO2 (sulfur dioxide) pollution is now 35x what it was before the fire at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works on December 24, 2018. “Today is 73 days after the explosion. If ACHD’s numbers are representative, this means US Steel has emitted over 7 years’ worth of sulfur pollution since the explosion as compared with before the explosion.” Read the full testimony given at the Allegheny County Health Department board meeting on 3/6/19 here: https://breatheproject.org/app/uploads/1970/01/ACHD_BOH_Meeting030619.pdf
[Watch for the surprise ending!!] A 75-year-old resident of Clairton testifies at the Allegheny County Board of Health Meeting on March 6, 2019. Re: Air quality problems after the fire at Clairton Coke Works.
March 8, 2019
The ACHD announced today via Facebook:
US Steel filed its notice and written explanation of material impossibility and conflict of legal requirements in response to the March 1, 2019 temporary stay order issued by ACHD’s hearing officer. That notice can be found here: http://bit.ly/2VRTVHt.
If the Health Department has a response, it must be filed by March 11 with the hearing officer. All information will then be considered by the hearing officer, although there is no set time frame for action. Any additional detail on future steps or further information will be provided and posted on the ACHD website.
March 11, 2019
Here is the formal context for this video as offered by Earthworks:
Community members alerted Earthworks to heavily increased flaring at the Irvin Steelworks plant as part of emergency operating conditions resulting from a fire at a connected facility, the Clairton Coke Plant, in December 2018. Locals in several nearby communities have expressed growing concern about the air quality, and health officials have gathered evidence elevated pollution levels in the area. Earthworks’ investigation with optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras on March 11, 2019 detected significant plumes of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) coming from the flares. The OGI camera is an industry-standard tool for visualizing air pollution from oil and gas development, and Earthworks’ camera operators are trained and certified to differentiate these gases from heat.
The ACHD noted the following on Facebook:
ACHD’s website houses a docket from the proceedings of active and closed legal cases brought before the Health Department’s hearing officer: http://bit.ly/2VTPN9P
The ACHD also noted this later that day:
US Steel’s temporary stay has been extended by the hearing officer until March 13. The extension does not impact any of ACHD’s daily activities, which includes monitoring repair progress at the Clairton Coke Works and providing SO2 status updates for the Clairton, Liberty, North Braddock and West Mifflin monitors. We will continue to provide public updates as additional information is available.
March 12, 2019
Wall Street Journal: Pittsburgh Air-Quality Problem Recalls the Bad Old Days
“Complaints surge after fire knocks out pollution controls at U.S. Steel coke plant”
People who live in Allegheny County, which surrounds Pittsburgh, have lodged more than 2,300 air-quality complaints this year.
The ACHD revised its enforcement order per the following announcement:
ACHD has revised its enforcement order issued February 28th against U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works (Edgar Thompson Plant, Irvin Plant and Clairton Coke Works). The action was taken in response to the plan submitted by U.S. Steel on March 7.
Per the revised order U.S. Steel is required to implement the following at its Clairton Coke Works facility: Extend coking times to 27 hours at all batteries by March 23, 2019; By April 1, 2019, install six axial compressors and start testing compressors; Have 100% desulfurization back online by April 15, 2019. Read more: http://bit.ly/2TJ8EGZ
Here is my Facebook comment on the ACHD notice post:
All this on the eve of a “poor air dispersion” day. Looks like the “lawyer up” approach worked in this case for US Steel. While citizens suffer and are regularly trapped indoors because of massive quantities of illegal SO2 (and who knows what other VOCs and hydrocarbons) released into our airshed, US Steel was able to avoid a hot idle order by simply moving up its repair schedule. What assurances do we have that US Steel will actually meet its plan? Are there any penalties for NOT achieving the plan? The lesson for the day is that if you DESIGN your system to not be able to shut down safely, then a shutdown request to protect citizens will be deemed too extreme for rational enforcement officers, and so you won’t be asked to shut down. You will be asked to move up your scheduled repairs. You will be asked to pay a fine. You will not be forced to build a “quick shutdown” feature into your system. No, that would be too expensive and not rational, particularly when you’re never asked to shut down quickly. This sets a dangerous precedent that a factory proven to be un-regulatable will not be forced to change its system design to protect citizens should future accidents occur. Citizens suffer while polluters profit. This is the status quo that we must change in this region if public health is to ever stand a chance.
U.S. Steel appealed the order, saying it could not meet the deadlines and that compliance — by substantially extending the time coal bakes in its ovens or idling parts of Clairton — could put its workers at risk. The company said last week that it anticipates having its pollution controls repaired by April 15.
“That made some of the requirements of the original order practically moot because there’s no technical, physical way they can be done in that period of time,” said Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health for the county health department. “Obviously it’s a good thing that they’re moving everything up by a month.”
U.S. Steel said in a statement that it’s pleased the health department considered its safety concerns and suggestions, but it’s disappointed that the department issued an enforcement order.
March 19, 2019
While not directly related to the fire at Clairton Coke Works, the following update by the ACHD relates to ongoing pollution from Clairton Coke Works in 2018:
In June of 2018, ACHD issued an enforcement order and civil penalty against US Steel due to a downward trend in compliance over time at the Clairton Coke Works.
US Steel appealed this order and civil penalty in July of 2018, and in December of 2018, a public hearing was held to determine the merits of US Steel’s appeal.
Following the hearing, ACHD and US Steel submitted summary briefs. These documents can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/2H2jnWh
The next deadline is March 22, 2019. If the Health Department chooses to respond to US Steel’s submission, it must submit its reply to the hearing officer by this day. US Steel would then have the opportunity to respond to ACHD’s submission, which would be due on March 29, 2019. Schedule is subject to change.
Once all documents are filed, the hearing officer will issue a written decision. While there is no time frame for when that decision must be issued, we will provide additional details and information as it becomes available.
March 25, 2019
The ACHD posted the following on Facebook:
ACHD’s continuous monitoring data shows a potential exceedance for the 24-hour PM 2.5 average (38) at the Liberty monitor on Sunday, March 24. The federal standard for 24-hour PM 2.5 average is 35.
This data is not verified. Health Department staff will be collecting additional data from monitors located at the Liberty site and will then analyze. This verification process can last multiple months.
PM 2.5 is emitted from multiple sources that burn fossil fuels, including industry, automobiles, and all other sources of combustion, which makes it nearly impossible to distinguish a soul source of pollutants.
Any time there is a PM2.5 exceedance of the federal standard, it must be addressed via a State Implementation Plan (SIP). ACHD’s SIP will be submitted to the EPA for consideration this summer.
My comment on their Facebook post reads as follows:
We are held hostage in our own homes by a broken regulatory system that allows wildly illegal pollution to continue day after day despite citizens howling for meaningful enforcement. Despite regulators knowing about ongoing violations. So, what are people supposed to do with this information? Not have gone outside yesterday? One look at the SmellPGH app and you’ll see that many people knew about this stink and reported it while it was happening. This just makes me sad, particularly for those people who suffer from asthma and other cardiovascular conditions. This is not justice. This is an all-too-painful and frustrating status quo that needs to change.
Another resident mentioned that they fled the area to get cleaner air:
We left to go to McConnells Mill State Park to get cleaner air. We unfortunately had to view the open pit mining happening adjacent to the park. Such a travesty!
March 28, 2019
The ACHD posted on Facebook the following notice of an SO2 exceedance:
There was an SO2 exceedance (.082 ppm) that occurred this morning during the 3 a.m. hour at the Liberty monitor. The federal standard for hourly SO2 emissions is .075 ppm.
ACHD is currently analyzing the data and an appropriate course of action concerning U.S. Steel’s operations will immediately follow our analysis. The emissions associated with this event will be considered in the civil penalties along with any additional measures required by ACHD. These enforcement actions will be levied after repairs are completed at the Clairton Coke Works.
Here is my reply via Facebook, along with that of another community member:
April 1, 2019
While not directly related to the Clairton Coke Works fire incident, the ACHD posted the following update on Facebook:
ACHD has levied a fine of $707,568 against U.S. Steel for the third and fourth quarters of 2018 due to continued emissions problems at the Clairton Coke Works facility. This marks the third civil penalty levied against U.S. Steel since June of 2018, totaling more than $2 million. This latest civil penalty is separate from all other enforcement actions and legal matters that the Health Department and U.S. Steel are actively involved in since the beginning of 2017.
Regarding the December 24, 2018 fire, once repairs to the Clairton Coke Works are completed, ACHD will conduct a comprehensive assessment of violations and will evaluate and review all information to determine the amount of the resulting civil penalties. The fines will be in addition to any additional measures that will be required by ACHD of U.S. Steel. Read more: http://bit.ly/2CIOFOT
This is my response:
April 2, 2019
Pittsburgh City Council: Post-Agenda on Air Quality
I was asked to speak at this event and compiled some slides indicating a sharp increase in citizen air quality complaints submitted via the SmellPGH app after the Clairton Coke Works fire.
April 4, 2019
The ACHD posted the following major notice today (and I was in Glassport and saw the big Peachtree on one moment and off the next.)
The Health Department has been notified by U.S. Steel that 100% desulfurization equipment is back online and is fully operational at its Clairton Coke Works facility.
ACHD will begin its comprehensive assessment of violations since the December 24, 2018 fire to determine the amount of the resulting civil penalties. The fines will be in addition to any other measures that will be required by ACHD of U.S. Steel.
U.S. Steel says the pollution controls at its Clairton Plant are fully operating again after a fire damaged them in December.
For over three months, the company has been working to repair equipment that takes sulfur out of the gas produced by baking coal into coke, a key ingredient in steelmaking, at its Clairton plant. When burned, the sulfur forms sulfur dioxide, a lung irritant that can cause respiratory problems.
And on the final day of Clairton Coke Works-related illegal flaring, we had a major stench incident across the region. The SmellPGH app sent an alert that 258 smell reports were submitted as of 7:25pm today. It is also interesting to notice the green “just fine” smell reports coming from in/around the Clairton Coke Works facility at the very bottom of the screen shot below. I wonder if they actually don’t smell anything or if they are just trying to convince the rest of the region that the air smells fine. I personally get a pressure headache in the front of my head between my eyes virtually EVERY time I visit the Clairton area. It is all too predictable.
April 6, 2019
BuzzFeed news ran an extensive feature story about the situation at Clairton Coke Works. It names names and paints a damning picture of the crisis related to the fire at Clairton Coke Works:
Air pollution has triggered sky-high asthma rates near Pittsburgh. With politicians unwilling to confront US Steel after a factory fire, a county health agency is pushing unprecedented penalties against the $14 billion company.
In this part of the country, politicians of both parties know that the way to win elections is to win the steel and coal workers. That means that Republicans — and even some big-name Democrats — seem unwilling to do much about the long-running pollution problem, which is disproportionately hitting young and elderly people, particularly in black communities.
“This is a classic David vs. Goliath battle,” Democratic state Rep. Austin Davis, who represents Clairton, told BuzzFeed News. “They are a county agency fighting with a multinational corporation with every lawyer in town on retainer.”
“Not only were they violating the standards, they were grossly violating the standards,” ACHD Deputy Director Jim Kelly told BuzzFeed News.
April 9, 2019
According to Kurt Barshik, General Manager of US Steel’s Mon Valley Works, several Allegheny County Health Department Board Members visited Clairton Coke Works for a tour. The tour was reported by Kurt to include coke production on the batteries and “observe the fully restarted operations of the Clairton #2 Control Room and our coke oven gas desulfurization process.”
April 10, 2019
PennFuture President and CEO, Jacquelyn Bonomo, was interviewed about Clairton Coke Works and its fire in December:
“We’re really looking for a switch in the way that they approach their business,” Bonomo says. “For all intents and purposes, U.S. Steel continues to pay to pollute. They obviously consider this to be a privledge of sorts.”
Bonomo is calling for more significant investments and permanent solutions from Clairton Coke Works to benefit workers and the surrounding community. The 25-year-old nonprofit environmental advocacy organization is recommending U.S. Steel replace Clairton’s 10 coke oven batteries, which fuel production of about 4.3 million tons of coke annually. Bonomo tells The Confluence that fines and enforcement actions aren’t enough.
April 15, 2019
Lawsuit filed by PennFuture, GASP, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and the Sierra Club against the EPA [filing document]:
This is a suit to compel the Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA” or “the agency”) to take actions mandated by the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7401-7671q (“the Act”) to protect public health and the environment from coke ovens, major industrial sources of highly toxic air pollutants.
A class action lawsuit was recently filed by “LINDA HERNANDEZ, on behalf of herself and all other similarly situated individuals” directly against US Steel per this filing document.
SUMMARY OF THE CASE
1. On December 24, 2018, a catastrophic fire erupted at Defendant’s Clairton Plant,
destroying a building as big as a football field and knocking out the “desulfurization” system Defendant used to remove sulfurous byproducts from the gases emitted to air. For more than three months, Defendant operated its plant without that system, and in so doing, released unprecedented quantities of noxious sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide directly into the Mon Valley air (footnote 1) triggering repeated high health alerts from the Allegheny County Health Department, causing widespread nuisance-level discomforts (offensive odor, burning eyes, nose and throat, difficulty breathing, sleep loss, headaches, anxiety), and generally impeding area residents’ use and enjoyment of their homes.
2. Plaintiff Linda Hernandez—one such area resident—brings this class action for damages under Pennsylvania common law nuisance and negligence.
3. Plaintiff seeks lost-use-and-enjoyment damages to vindicate private property rights, not enforcement of environmental statutes, regulations, or regulatory permits; she seeks monetary damages, not injunctive relief. Lawsuits for Pennsylvania common law negligence and nuisance—like that here—are distinct from, and not preempted by, federal law. See Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, 734 F.3d 188 (3d Cir. 2013).
4. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant was negligent, and created a nuisance, by failing to exercise the reasonable care that would have prevented the fire, then operating the firedamaged Plant without the pollution controls needed to avoid class-area harm. The prolonged discomforts experienced throughout the class area (offensive odors, breathing problems, burning eyes, nose and throat, disrupted sleep, anxiety), and the repeated public warnings that alarmed class-area residents and caused them to shutter inside their homes, were all foreseeable. Defendant knew or should have known they would occur.
5. Defendant’s conduct was reckless. Compensatory and punitive damages are warranted to redress the harms Defendant caused and deter like conduct in future.
Footnote 1: Allegheny County has a long history of regulatory enforcement litigation over emissions from the Clairton Plant; and the County is in “non-attainment status” with respect to sulfur dioxide emissions for which Defendant is the major source. The emission levels that caused the nuisance conditions claimed of here, following the fire, are unprecedented.
I found this portion of the class action lawsuit particularly interesting, indicating that the “class” is believed to “exceed tens of thousands” of people:
27. Numerosity (Pa. R. Civ. P. 1702(1)): The Class, as defined in paragraph 26 above, is so numerous that joinder of all class members is impracticable. The exact number of class members is unknown, but it is believed to exceed tens of thousands.
This section was also compelling:
38. Defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent and/or reckless. Defendant allowed conditions to exist that caused noxious odors and other harmful emissions to physically invade Plaintiff’s and class members’ properties, and thus demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether injury resulted to Plaintiff’s or class members’ properties.
This article by StateImpact discusses both lawsuits:
Two lawsuits announced this week stem from air pollution problems tied to the steel industry.
In one, PennFuture, the Sierra Club and other groups seek to force the Environmental Protection Agency to update its standards for coke ovens across the country.
The other comes from an East Pittsburgh woman who filed a class action suit on behalf of Mon Valley residents following December’s fire that damaged pollution controls at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works near Pittsburgh.
May 1, 2019
The Allegheny County Health Department had their board meeting today, with several updates about issues related to the fire at Clairton Coke Works. Citizens also had plenty to say about regional air quality problems in their testimonies at the end of the meeting. US Steel’s Mon Valley Works General Manager, Kurt Barshick, testified last with a few updates that are notably disconnected from the deeply troubling citizen testimonies just moments before. Mr. Barshick indicated that “just today we re-started our ninth compressor.” He also indicated that they made upgrades to their gas cleaning and byproducts recovery units, calling them “in fact, better than ever.” I suggest to the reader that time will tell if “better than ever” is sufficient to protect public health.
The Post-Gazette featured this same-day update about the ACHD Board Meeting:
Mark Dixon, a local environmental filmmaker, called the steelmaker’s operation of the coke works following a Dec. 24 fire that destroyed its desulfurization equipment and led to nine violations of sulfur dioxide emissions standards “criminal” and the health department response “impotent.”
“Air quality better than it used to be is no longer good enough,” Mr. Dixon said. “We demand clean air now.”
May 2, 2019
The Environmental Integrity Project, Clean Air Council, and the Breathe Project filed an “notice of intent to sue” US Steel in Federal Court, per this article by the P-G (by my count this is the third lawsuit filed against US Steel for their actions following the Clairton Coke Works fire):
Thousands of pounds of hazardous air pollutants were emitted daily by U.S. Steel Corp.’s three Mon Valley Works facilities in the months following a Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works, but the company never reported the discharges to federal regulators as required, according to estimates by three environmental organizations.
Emissions of benzene, a known human carcinogen, were estimated at between 1,083 and 3,520 pounds a day, hundreds of times more than the 10 pound limit.
Each failure to report is a CERCLA violation carrying a potential penalty of $55,000. For the three facilities involved, U.S. Steel could face a total penalty of more than $50 million.
May 3, 2019
The ACHD posted the following update on Facebook, announcing their motion to intervene in the CAC/PennEnvironment lawsuit against US Steel:
On Monday, April 29, the National Environmental Law Center, on behalf of its clients, the Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel seeking remedies for the air quality violations related to the December 24, 2018 fire at the Clairton Coke Works facility. This morning, the Allegheny County Health Department filed a motion to intervene in that lawsuit. Read more: bit.ly/2DPWyTw
And here is the full press release statement explaining their logic (bold/underline emphasis below is mine):
Health Department Petitions to Intervene in Federal Suit Against US Steel PITTSBURGH – On Monday, April 29, the National Environmental Law Center, on behalf of its clients, the Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel seeking remedies for the air quality violations related to the December 24, 2018 fire at the Clairton Coke Works facility. This morning, the Allegheny County Health Department filed a motion to intervene in that lawsuit. Joining this action will ensure the strongest case possible is brought against U.S. Steel. After reviewing the initial filing, our legal counsel determined that collaborating with the citizens’ groups would increase the resources available to the department and allow for the best possible outcome of our enforcement action for public health and impacted residents. If the motion to intervene is granted, the Health Department will be pursuing remedies and civil penalties through the federal judicial system rather than issuing those unilaterally through an administrative order. Because this is a legal matter, the Department will not have any further comment on it but believes that the filing speaks for itself. The Motion to Intervene can be found at http://bit.ly/2Y9TERf and the Complaint in Intervention can be found at: http://bit.ly/2Y40qrt.
[END OF TIMELINE – This post will be regularly updated as developments occur.]
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