Worker and Community Voices Must Be Centered for a Just Green Steel Transition
By Erika Thi Patterson
Steel is among the world’s most widely used materials—from buildings to bridges, cars to ships, electrical appliances to toolboxes, It’s found in nearly every aspect of modern life. At the same time, the steel industry is a major global polluter, responsible for over 7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
This week, steelmaker executives and elected officials from around the world are convening at the Global Steel Dynamics Forum in New York City. The program features topics like “Green Steel Financing” and “Green Steel: What Is It, and Who Gets to Decide?” We’re curious to see who industry thinks should be at the table.
So far, we know Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Senator who has raked in millions of dollars over three decades from his ties to the coal industry and who has used his political positions to block more stringent coal regulation, was given a platform as a featured speaker at the conference. Manchin’s pro-coal agenda stifles innovation and continues to delay the urgent transition to green steel.
The industry is long overdue for a green and just transition. But even though steelmakers can begin decarbonizing today by using cleaner, more sustainable technologies, most producers of new steel (known as “primary” steel, as opposed to recycled) still use technology based on 14th-century coal-burning blast furnaces, harming our health and climate.
In the United States, eight remaining integrated steel mills produce iron and steel by burning massive amounts of coke made from coal in blast furnaces. Each steel mill emits roughly as much carbon dioxide as a coal-fired power plant. Pollution from these facilities not only accelerates climate change but also spews toxins linked to cancer and lung disease, causing premature death in neighboring communities.
We need a rapid transition away from coal. Take action today to demand global automakers like Toyota, Ford, and GM pressure steelmakers to ditch polluting blast furnace technology and invest in a just, green steel future.
The longer this transition takes, the more dire consequences for steel towns like Braddock and Pittsburgh, PA. Braddock is home to an Edgar Thomson steel mill that supplied steel for the Brooklyn Bridge and other iconic American infrastructure. While the arrival of the steel industry played a vital role in the city’s history and economy, it brought about severe harms that were disproportionately foisted on to some communities. Allegheny County, the county in which Braddock and Pittsburgh are based, ranks in the top 2 percent of U.S. counties for cancer from air pollution, and Black residents, who tend to live closer to the Edgar Thomson steel mill, suffer from higher rates of lung cancer than white residents.
Due to the nation’s legacy of redlining and other predatory housing policies that relegated people of color—especially Black families—to unsafe housing stock and polluting industrial parts of the city, this story is not uncommon. Today, racially segregated communities in the U.S. are exposed to toxic metals at a rate that’s nearly 10 times higher than more integrated communities.
The communities that bore the burden of steel mill pollution and contamination for generations as American workers built out the country’s infrastructure and transportation systems must be at the center of shaping the industry’s transition to a green steel future.
As major consumers of steel, automaker giants like Toyota, Ford, and GM wield major purchasing power to transform the steel industry off of coal-dependent technologies. Over a third of the leading US auto-steel manufacturers’ revenue comes from the auto industry. Automakers must leverage their power to ensure that the steel industry invests in a green steel future, working closely with community and worker supply chain stakeholders.
Corporations and coal-profiteering politicians can’t be the only ones at the table charting the future of the steel industry.
Tell global automakers to listen to the voices of communities impacted by coal pollution. It’s time to usher in a new era of fossil-free, green steel.