Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 15, 2019) — Today Earthjustice on behalf of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Gasp, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Sierra Club, sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for improperly regulating coke ovens – producers of known carcinogens – thus failing to protect communities throughout the country. Over a decade ago, EPA found that carcinogenic emissions from coke ovens destroy air quality and cause devastating health complications, yet plaintiffs in the case argue the agency failed to act to protect nearby communities from this threat.

“The pollutants spewed by coke ovens cause cancer and other serious illnesses. Fourteen years ago today, EPA admitted that it couldn’t say whether its own regulations adequately protected people from this threat and promised to do something about it. Since that day, EPA hasn’t taken a single step to fulfill its promise. It’s long past time for EPA to do its job and protect people in places like Birmingham, Ala., Clairton, and Erie, Pa., and St. James Parish, La.,” said Earthjustice Attorney Tosh Sagar.

“EPA determined years ago that coke ovens produce known carcinogens and that millions of residents in nearby towns and cities breath these carcinogens in. This is just one in a long litany of EPA’s failure. It’s time EPA does its job to review and revise standards for coke ovens in order to protect these people and meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act,” said the plaintiffs in a joint statement.

Coke ovens used usually for iron making superheat coal producing more than 40 highly toxic air pollutants – including benzene, arsenic, and lead – that escape poorly-sealed oven doors every time coal is added to bake or coke is removed from an oven. These poisonous gases not only cause breathing problems but are also known carcinogens that threaten nearby residential communities.

In 2005, EPA issued regulations for emissions from coke oven batteries. But these regulations didn’t address many of the points in the coke oven plants that are responsible for significant emissions. Even worse, EPA itself recognized that it could not know whether the 2005 regulations adequately protect people from these carcinogenic gases.

EPA promised to address this problem, but 14 years have passed and EPA has done nothing. In just the last few years, EPA admitted in federal court that it similarly failed to review and update standards for more than 40 other sources of hazardous air pollutants. Thus, EPA’s failure to review and revise standards for coke ovens is just one example of its disregard for using the Clean Air Act to protect communities. This lawsuit aims to enforce the Clean Air Act by requiring EPA to properly regulate coke oven facilities that produce known carcinogens.

Examples of the Impact of Coke Facilities:

  • U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works in Allegheny County is the largest coke plant in the country and decidedly has the greatest impact on deteriorating air quality in western Pennsylvania. Decades of consent orders, multi-millions of dollars in fines paid, and more recently, tougher enforcement by regulators have not resulted in Clairton operating in a manner protective of air quality. “Forcing EPA to finally set standards for these emissions will go a long way to protecting people living near coking facilities like Clairton in western Pennsylvania and across the country,” said PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo.
  • In Birmingham, there are two coke plants less than two miles from each other within low-income, overwhelmingly African-American communities. One of the two plants, Drummond Company’s, ABC Coke, is the largest merchant producer of foundry coke in the United States. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the company would be fined $775,000 for violating the Clean Air Act. The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America ranks Birmingham in the top 10 in its Asthma Capitals report.
  • The residents of the St. James Parish, La., already experience some of the highest cancer rates in the nation and Nucor plans to add to their burden by building a new, massive coke oven plant. If EPA reviewed and updated these standards, Nucor would have to build this plant using the most-up-to-date pollution controls. But if EPA doesn’t act fast to review the standards, the residents of St. James parish will be subjected to carcinogenic gases as a result of Nucor’s old, dirty technology for decades to come. “Nucor made the decision to put its polluting facility in the middle of a historic black community, and now that community is bearing the brunt of its pollution and the government’s failure of oversight. It’s long past time for the law to be enforced,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. 



Tosh Sagar
Earthjustice attorney

Anne Rolfes
Louisiana Bucket Brigade

Michael Hansen

Judy Kelly
Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future

Jane Williams
Sierra Club

FAQs About ABC Coke’s Permit: What You Need to Know

FAQs About ABC Coke’s Permit: What You Need to Know

FAQs About ABC Coke’s Permit: What You Need to Know

Last fall, the Jefferson County Department of Health posted ABC Coke’s Title V pollution permit renewal application. (Title V is just a provision of the Clean Air Act.) We asked for (and received) an extension on the public comment period to allow us and residents of Jefferson County to submit questions and to JCDH. We also requested a public hearing. That request was granted and two hearings were held on November 15. Dozens of community members filled the conference room at JCDH at both hearings and made compelling arguments about the need for a strong permit to protect public health. 

We filed extensive written comments on the permit which pointed out several deficiencies with the permit renewal and permit application. We posted those comments here and highlighted some of the opportunities for improvement.

If you were one of the people who made oral comments at the hearings or submitted written comments by mail or email, you may have recently received a letter from JCDH. Folks have been asking us what this letter means and what’s next, so we thought we would put together a FAQ guide for you. An amazingly helpful resource is this booklet, Proof is in the Permit.


Why did I get this letter?

What is a “proposed permit?”

What is EPA’s 45 day review period?

Is this letter about another public comment period?

What does it mean for EPA to “object” to a permit?

Is it only EPA who can object to a permit?

Is Gasp going to object to ABC Coke’s permit?

I asked JCDH to deny ABC Coke’s permit. Why didn’t they?

What can I do now? How can I be involved?

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why did I get this letter?

A: You either 1) attended the hearing, 2) also made comments at the hearing, and/or 3) submitted written comments to JCDH about ABC Coke’s Draft Permit. JCDH wrote this letter to inform you that the Draft Permit was proposed (more on what this means later) to EPA on March 1, 2019. They also used this letter to direct people to JCDH’s website where their responses to written comments are posted.

↑ back to top

Q: What is a “proposed permit?”

A: After the public comment period and reviewing the comments on the Draft Permit, JCDH submits the draft permit to the regional U.S. EPA office, Region 4, for a 45 day review period. At the time JCDH submitted the draft permit to EPA, it becomes a “proposed permit.”

↑ back to top

Q: What is EPA’s 45 day review period?

A: In this situation, EPA’s “clock” to review started ticking on March 1, 2019 (which means the 45 day review period ends on April 18, 2019, which begins another clock. More on that later). This means that during these 45 days, EPA will review the permit and may object (more on that later). While every permit must be submitted to U.S. EPA for the 45-day review period, U.S. EPA is not required to review every proposed permit. Each regional U.S. EPA office has its own policy on selecting permits to review, but U.S. EPA suggested a target of reviewing at least ten percent of all permits proposed for facilities in each of U.S. EPA’s ten regions. The EPA is most likely to review proposed permits for very large or controversial facilities.

↑ back to top

Q: Is this letter about another public comment period?

A: No. There are no more opportunities for public comment with EPA during their 45 day review period. If you provided comments during the public comment period, you could petition the EPA to object to ABC Coke’s permit (more on that later).

↑ back to top

Q: What does it mean for EPA to “object” to a permit?

A: EPA must object to the proposed permit if EPA determines that the proposed permit does not comply with federal laws or regulations. In addition, the EPA can choose to object to a proposed permit if the Permitting Authority does not provide U.S. EPA with sufficient supporting information to allow for meaningful U.S. EPA review or if the permitting authority fails to follow the right procedures for public participation. If EPA chooses to object, they must give JCDH a written explanation for the objection and give JCDH 90 days to submit a revised version of the proposed permit to EPA. If JCDH misses this deadline, EPA can either deny the permit or develop a permit for ABC Coke themselves.

↑ back to top

Q: Is it only EPA who can object to a permit?

A: No. If you commented on the draft permit during the public comment period and are not satisfied with the proposed permit JCDH sent to EPA, you can ask EPA to object to the permit. You make this request through a petition to EPA. This is the clock that starts ticking after EPA’s 45 day review period ends. You have 60 days from the end of the 45 day review period to petition the EPA to object to the permit. In this case, you have until June 14, 2019 to petition the EPA to object to ABC Coke’s permit.

↑ back to top

Q: Is Gasp going to object to ABC Coke’s permit?

A: Gasp is still reviewing