EDITORIAL: For U.S. Steel, reckoning with Toomey's questions is a start

·3 min read

May 9—In 2019, U.S. Steel's announcement of a $1.2 billion investment in its Mon Valley Works brought questions and excitement — the good, anticipatory kind. Yes, there would be a new endless casting and rolling facility at the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and a cogeneration facility at the Clairton Plant, but there were still things people wanted to know.

When would the construction start? How long would it take? Would it impact the problems Clairton had seen with air quality? How much? What about jobs?

On April 30, U.S. Steel made a new announcement. After two years of waiting, CEO David Burritt said it was "a difficult day," the day that he said that massive investment would not be happening.

Now Sen. Pat Toomey has new questions for U.S. Steel. In a visit Wednesday to a labor forum in Pittsburgh, the Republican senator expressed the same kind of desire for answers that locals have.

"Steel prices are at a record high, demand is strong, the economy is growing, infrastructure is all anybody is talking about, and we've got this great facility that has already made a big investment that is going to lead to some of the cleanest steel in the world," Toomey said. "What happened? That's the question."

It is too simple to blame it solely on environmentalists chasing U.S. Steel away, as Greg Bernarding, business manager for Iron Workers Local No. 3, suggested.

U.S. Steel has definitely faced challenges from that area. The company has been fined more than $9.8 million by the Allegheny County Health Department over a 15-year period. In January 2019, the department began warning of high sulfur dioxide levels following a Christmas Eve gas fire that shut down pollution control systems.

But that is nothing new. That isn't a change from 2019. And that is why Toomey wants answers.

"I'll be asking them to explain what happened here, why did this look like a good project two years ago, and then two years later it's all over?" Toomey said.

This is the most important question. Southwestern Pennsylvania is the same place today that it was in 2019. If U.S. Steel built these communities over the last 100 years, so did those same communities build U.S. Steel. There has to be a way for the two to work together to the same symbiotic relationship they have enjoyed for decades, understanding the whipsaw nature of the steel business, with cost competition domestically and internationally.

Toomey didn't just ask questions. He also pointed to a solution — the infrastructure investment that both Democrats and Republicans have touted for years. It was a favorite talking point of the Trump administration and it is a priority of the Biden administration now, though Republicans like Toomey want a plan substantially smaller than the White House's.

"It's roads and bridges and highways and airports and all of the things that we understand are infrastructure, and there is bipartisan support for that," Toomey said.

And critically, much of that will involve steel that could roll out of the Mon Valley Works and across projects nationwide, making it all the more important to have viable, up-to-date plants on board — and to have the questions about why they won't be upgraded answered.

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