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County's goal: Coke with less pollution

Sunday, March 21, 1999

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On six days out of seven, more air pollutants than permitted spew from the Shenango Inc. coke works on Neville Island.

Despite years of prodding by the Allegheny County Health Department and capital improvements by the company, the environmental compliance numbers have improved nary a whiff.

Little wonder, then, that opponents of a proposal to build a coke plant next door to the old one say it will add to the out-of-control sulfur dioxide and airborne particulate emissions from the island in the Ohio River.

But in a twist on history - and, some say, logic - the coke plant proposed by Antaeus Energy should lead to pollution reductions, according to the Health Department. The new plant will be permitted, department officials say, only if new emission control plans are in place at the existing facility.

"We do have the company plan that includes steps to correct the sulfur dioxide problem at the existing coke works, and we're satisfied with it," said Roger Westman, manager of the county's Air Quality Program. "We will probably propose approval of the new plant's installation permit in April."

Shenango and Antaeus, which intend to merge next month, want to build a $100 million coking plant that would produce 500,000 tons of coke a year and employ 50 people. The new plant would be next to Shenango's present coke works, which produces 360,000 tons of coke annually and employs 200.

The Health Department's Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee plans to tour the Shenango coke works and view the new coke plant site on Tuesday.

Opponents say they will be on hand, too, to oppose the Antaeus project and question what they say has been lax and ineffective enforcement by the Health Department.

The department's own data shows Shenango's coke facility exceeded its sulfur dioxide emissions limit on 232 days last year and 181 days in 1997. It exceeded airborne particulate limits on 310 days in 1998 and 329 days in 1997.

"As Shenango enters its sixth consecutive year of air violations, it's long past time that the Health Department took action to bring Shenango into compliance," said Myron Arnowitt, Western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action. "Meanwhile, nearby residents are at risk from the excess emissions."

Coke oven gases contain cancer-causing compounds, and exposure to sulfur dioxide and small airborne soot particles has been linked to asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory problems.

The Neville Island Good Neighbor Committee has called on the Health Department to take immediate action to bring Shenango's coke plant into compliance, and to refuse any new permit until compliance is achieved. Any new permit should specify actions that will be enforced automatically if emissions violations occur.

The county fined Shenango $20,300 for air pollution violations in 1996 and $121,800 in 1997. In the first quarter of 1998, Shenango paid $34,375 in fines. Penalties totaling $105,400 for the last nine months of the year were assessed last week.

"We've fined them more than a quarter of a million dollars in the last two years, so that's a significant amount," said Guillermo Cole, a Health Department spokesman. "And the possibility of additional penalties has not been ruled out as part of another consent order."

But coke plant opponents say the fines are too small to spur needed changes.

Shenango is in the midst of making environmental improvements to its coke battery and desulfurization operations, and Antaeus CEO Stephen Barber said those would be completed.

"One of Antaeus Energy's major priorities in its merger with Shenango is to improve the plant's current environmental performance," he said. "The merged Antaeus/Shenango entity will have the capital and management resources needed to further advance progress on Shenango's planned environmental improvements to the existing plant."

Barber said Antaeus' current operations were certified under ISO 1400, an international environmental standard that requires "best practice environmental management policies and procedures."

"If we don't continue to meet these standards, we will lose our certification, which is a key marketing advantage to us," Barber said. "We do not want that to happen. We will work with Shenango to solve these existing problems and ensure ongoing compliance."

Convincing Neville residents and other opponents that more coke making will lead to less pollution isn't an easy sell, Westman acknowledged.

"Shenango's desulfurization plant has had problems for many years and a very poor record of compliance," he said. "We don't have any magic bullets to get the plant into compliance. The company has made changes in its equipment, but none have lived up to our expectations. The new compliance plan addresses those past failures."

Despite Shenango's history of excessive emissions, Westman said, they haven't led to violations of the overall air quality standard around Neville Island.

"There have not been violations of the ambient air standard and they have not been a threat to public health," he said. "We think the best solution is to work with the company to improve emissions, and we think Antaeus will help the situation, not make it worse."

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