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Group plans suit over coke pollution

Tuesday, September 14, 1999

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Negotiations to settle the longest-running air pollution problem in Allegheny County are at an impasse over financial penalties the federal government is seeking from Shenango Inc.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is demanding that the Neville Island coke-maker pay more than $4 million for regularly failing to meet pollution limits imposed by a 1993 federal consent decree.

Shenango has offered to pay more than $1 million.

Negotiations have stalled just as an environmental group is getting ready to file suit against Shenango for violating the 1993 decree.

The Group Against Smog and Pollution filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue on July 22, alleging that Shenango exceeded sulfur and airborne particle standards every year since, including 232 days last year and 68 of the first 151 days of 1999. The mandatory waiting period to file a lawsuit expires next Monday.

"This is a serious situation," said William Luneburg, GASP attorney. "The EPA never imposed any of the stipulated penalties in the 1993 agreement, and the county has assessed only insignificant penalties and hasn't enforced the decree."

Shenango, the EPA and the Department Justice have been talking about a new agreement that would bring the existing 56-oven coke battery into compliance and impose heavy fines at least since June.

"EPA has been aggressively pursuing a new consent decree," said David Sternberg, an EPA spokesman. "But I doubt whether we will have a formal agreement by next week."

The impasse over financial penalties for past pollution make that prediction a near certainty, despite reported progress on an array of technical pollution issues.

Luneburg said if the government doesn't reach a new consent agreement with Shenango or file a suit against the company, "GASP will have to go ahead with its enforcement action."

The group will hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. today, in the Neville Municipal Building, 550 Grand Ave., to review the status of its legal action and information about Shenango's proposal to build a new, $100 million coking facility next to its existing battery, which has had pollution problems since the early 1980s.

The proposed coke plant, a joint project with Antaeus Energy Corp. of Wakefield, Mass., would use waste tailings from West Virginia mines to produce 500,000 tons of coke a year and employ 50 people. Shenango's existing, 15-year-old plant employs 200 and produces 360,000 tons of coke a year.

In recent months, Shenango has been more successful in controlling pollution at its existing coke battery. The company has spent millions of dollars to make its desulfurization facility work properly.

"The emissions data in recent months is very encouraging," Sternberg said. "It indicates compliance and progress."

Westman said Shenango needs to maintain its recent performance levels over the long haul.

"The plant's performance has improved to about 98 percent," he said, "but I don't know yet if there's been adequate time for a full assessment."

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