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Local groups seek EPA help over coke plant emissions

Friday, July 16, 1999

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The longest ongoing air pollution problem in Allegheny County billows out of Shenango's Neville Island coke plant, and Clean Water Action and a Neville citizens group have asked for federal help to finally end it.

The environmental groups want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require Shenango to comply with air pollution standards it agreed to meet in a 1993 federal consent decree before the company's permit application for a new, expanded coke operation is approved.

Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action regional director, said Shenango has exceeded those sulfur and airborne particulate standards every year since and on 68 of the first 151 days in 1999.

At a morning protest outside the Federal Building, Downtown, he said both the EPA and the Allegheny County Health Department have failed to enforce the 1993 consent agreement with Shenango that calls for automatic fines for air quality violations he estimated at $2.3 million.

"As residents of the area, we're most concerned about the health impacts," said Ellen O'Connell Benedetto, a member of the Neville Island Good Neighbor Committee and a resident of Ben Avon, across the Ohio River from Shenango. "The county health department has been cordial and reassuring, but we're frustrated and tired and want to reclaim our right to clean air."

Arnowitt took the groups' request directly to EPA Regional Administrator W. Michael McCabe, who was in Pittsburgh yesterday for informal meetings with business and environmental leaders.

"We hope you will become more involved, and require the existing plant be brought into compliance," Arnowitt said to McCabe during the two-hour afternoon meeting attended by a half dozen environmental group leaders and hosted by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council on the South Side.

McCabe disputed Arnowitt's contention that the EPA hasn't enforced the 1993 consent decree, and said the agency, the Allegheny County Health Department and the U.S. Department of Justice are discussing a new consent decree with the company.

"The standards set in the 1993 consent agreement are the toughest in the country, but we're not pleased Shenango hasn't come into compliance," McCabe said. "We are involved in a settlement discussion now to get the plant into compliance and set penalties."

He said the EPA told the county in May not to issue an installation permit for the new coke plant until the consent negotiations end.

"The new plant is such a carrot for the company that it should not be allowed to start until the old facility is in compliance."

Shenango and Antaeus Energy Corp. of Wakefield, Mass, want to build a $100 million coke plant next to Shenango's existing 56-oven coke battery, which has had pollution problems since the early 1980s.

The new plant, which would use coal waste tailings from West Virginia mines, would produce 500,000 tons of coal a year and employ 50 people. Shenango's existing plant produces 360,000 tons a year and employs 200.

In 1997 and 1998, the county fined Shenango $260,675 for excessive sulfur and particulate emissions. Those fines aren't related to the special penalties contained in the 1993 consent agreement, "which are a separate issue and still on the table as part of the ongoing consent order discussions," said Roger Westman, Allegheny County Health Department division manager for air quality.

Under the company's proposed permit for the new facility, the existing 15-year-old plant would continue to operate with new pollution controls.

"Shenango has been proceeding with implementation of the corrective actions proposed in its permit application even though it hasn't been approved," Westman said. "Shenango's air quality violations have been decreasing each month as more new equipment is installed and we expect to start seeing some very significant improvements starting now."

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