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Midweek Perspectives: A new and improved coke plant on Neville Island? Not so fast

Wednesday, April 21, 1999

By Walter Goldburg

No one believes that the steel industry is headed for a major revival in these parts, but coke-making is another matter. We have the largest coke plant in the United States on the banks of the Monongehala River at Clairton. The old LTV plant in Hazelwood wore out, but Sun Coal & Coke has been looking to build another one on the same spot (over cries of anguish from nearby residents).

  Walter Goldburg is on the board of GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution). He lives in Squirrel Hill. 

Then there is the Shenango coke works on Neville Island. An Australian firm, Antaeus Energy, aims to buy out Shenango and put up a new and less polluting plant on the same property.

Antaeus promises to be a better corporate neighbor than Shenango and vows to operate the old byproduct plant within the law or shut it down. The new operation should bring 50 good-paying jobs to our area, and we can rejoice in that.

But the good news in this story ends here.

Few would argue that coke-making is the dirtiest end of the steel industry. In a byproduct plant like the ones at Shenango and Clairton, coal is held at high temperature for 18 hours or so, during which the organic chemicals in the coal are driven off and collected to make, among other things, football helmets and TV cabinets. In addition, effluents such as dust, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and toxic chemicals also pour out, especially if the plant is poorly run.

As long as most of us can remember, Shenango has been violating our health-based emission regulations. This continues without let-up. Our ambient air quality standards are being met here. At the same time, there were exceedances of the sulfur dioxide emission regulations on 232 days in 1998 and on 25 of them in the first 75 days of 1999.

As for particulate emissions (dust and haze), the situation is hardly better, with violations occuring on 310 days in 1998 and 329 days in 1997. As nearby residents are aware, the Shenengo coke works generates offensive odors, violating a county regulation that forbids any plant from doing this beyond its gates.

In 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to Shenango because the company was failing to meet its legally enforceable promises. Usually this action is followed by a stiff fine, but not this time.

Instead, the county is rewarding Shenango for its bad behavior by permitting coke production to be doubled. And on what basis? Merely a promise from Antaeus that they will turn over a new leaf and eliminate violations at the old byproduct plant.

But what if they do not or they cannot? If the past is any guide, the company will be required to pay a quarterly fine so small that it is no deterrent at all. Not once in the history of air pollution control here has a local coke plant been forced to cut back production (much less shut down) because emission regulations have been violated.

Happily for local residents, the county must precede the issuance of a construction permit to Antaeus with a 30-day comment period and a public hearing. The proposed draft will be available today, so skeptics have until mid-May to register their objections. This one-month interval is a good one to let the Health Department know how we feel about rewarding scofflaws for bad behavior.

Why, we might ask, should we trust Antaeus to run a coke plant safely when Shenango has failed? Some have argued that Antaeus has deeper pockets than Shenango (which only recently emerged from bankruptcy), so it should be able to afford pollution controls that Shenango's owners cannot. Maybe so, but where is the evidence?

It's natural to ask if Antaeus has any experience in running a traditional byproduct coke plant. The answer to that is no. The new owners will be taught the tricks of the trade by the self-same Shenango working team that has brought us the past and present violations.

Others point out that Antaeus will be bringing us a less harmful way to make coke.

The company does have a pilot plant of this new type operating in Bristol, Va., but no air pollution emissions measurements have been made there, so we have no measure of its success. By the way, the Bristol plant was heavily bankrolled by the U.S. Department of Energy, not by Antaeus itself.

We in GASP favor an alternative to the hasty issuance of a construction permit to Antaeus. The compliance record of Shenango is bad enough that a permit for the construction of a new coke plant should be held off until the company has demonstrated, beyond doubt, that it can operate the old plant in a way that will protect public health by meeting federal and local emission regulations.

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