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New owners invest in pollution turnaround at Shenango coke plant

| Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012, 9:09 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
As Ted Popovich shoots photographs, Karen Grzywinski marks down observations of Shenango Inc. on Neville Island. The two are volunteer smoke screeners with a group that monitors pollution from the plant. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

Karen Grzywinski has kept a close eye on pollution coming from the Shenango Inc. coke plant on Neville Island since the mid-1990s after moving to Ben Avon.

Rarely did she like what she saw or smelled.

“It was very disruptive to our day-to-day living with all the emissions and odors in the area,” Grzywinski said.

She has since moved to Ohio Township, but Grzywinski continues to monitor harmful smoke and soot from the plant through a program administered by local environmental group GASP — Group Against Smog and Pollution.

Until a couple of years ago, any concerns and complaints about the pollution fell on deaf ears at the plant, she said. But with a recent change in ownership, things seem to be improving.

“They have been so much more open and responsive,” she said. “They haven't shied away from the questions we've asked them.”

Grzywinski isn't the only one to notice. Local community groups, environmentalists and government regulators said the plant's new owners have taken great strides to improve safety and pollution compliance at the battery, which bakes coal at high temperatures to turn it into a raw material used in making steel.

“They've made a large number of improvements,” said Jim Thompson, manager of Allegheny County's air quality program. “We've seen a significant drop in violations at Shenango.”

Troubles inherited

Detroit-based DTE Energy Co. bought the family-owned plant in 2008 and inherited a range of problems. But the $8.8 billion utility and energy-services company has invested $8 million so far in upgrades and plans another $34 million in capital spending over the next five years.

In 2005, under the previous owners, Allegheny County ordered Shenango to pay $252,000 for repeated pollution violations, the largest-ever fine the county had slapped on a coke-making operation.

After negotiating fixes, the fine was dropped to $200,000. But problems continued.

According to DTE, the plant's emissions of smoke and soot were above limits an average of 304 hours a month in 2005, or about 40 percent of the hours in a typical month. The next year, it was only down to 275 hour a month on average.

So far this year, after significant fixes, the plant is averaging 29 hours a month above limits and it's working toward a county-mandated goal of 11 hours a month.

Hidden problems

Among changes were the installation of automatic power backup systems and electrical system upgrades to prevent emissions during power failures.

Improvements were made to systems that feed coal into the ovens to make the process more efficient. If too much coal is put in the ovens, it won't bake thoroughly and lots of smoke is released when the oven doors are opened to remove the coke.

The ovens themselves were cleaned to improve air flow and create more efficient combustion, cracks were welded and leaking doors were replaced.

It was more work, and more money, than the company initially expected, plant manager Steven Guzy said.

He compared inspecting the plant before DTE completed its purchase to buying a house. You can have a home inspected, but that won't always reveal hidden problems.

“You don't know there's mold or mildew in there until you tear out the walls,” Guzy said.

And more improvements are planned, including constructing a new wastewater treatment plant on site, officials said.

“There's still a good list of things to do, but we're pretty sure we know what should be on the list,” said John Austerberry, a spokesman for DTE Energy.

Safety among the plant's 149 workers has gotten better. In 2006, the plant recorded 21 injuries and 13 lost work days. Last year, it had three injuries and two lost days.

Listening to concerns

Plant officials are engaging with the local community. They've established a working group with local residents, environmentalists and others that meets monthly to discuss concerns.

“They've been good,” Julie St. John, a program organizer for Clean Water Action in Pittsburgh, said of the meetings. “It's opened up dialogue and that's been really good.”

But St. John said the company goes further than the monthly meetings with a select group of community members. Shenango officials should hold an open forum for anyone who wants to hear about what's going on at the plant

“We've been asking them to do this for a year now,” she said.

Last month, Shenango agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the county to resolve violations going back to 2006. The agreement, which included a $1.75 million fine, included stricter pollution standards.

“They are in compliance with that consent decree and they're fulfilling all obligations,” Thompson said.

Plant officials also are cooperating with the county to tighten other pollution limits during the time when ovens are open to remove coke, he said.

“It should continue to help with this trend in improved air quality,” he said.

Can it ever be clean?

The county and local environmentalists are pleased with the progress, though they hope to see more. But they recognize that a coke plant will probably never be completely pollution-free.

“They definitely seem like they're dedicated to putting in the resources to clean up the community,” St. John said. “The thing with coke plants, it's never going to be 100 percent clean because of what it is.”

Thompson agreed: “Coke plants are one of the dirtier process that exist. There's never going to be zero pollution coming from that.”

Grzywinski said she's cautiously optimistic.

“They've done a number of things,” she said. “It seems like they wouldn't have put in this much effort if they weren't serious about it.”

Whether realistic or not, the company says its ultimate goal is zero pollution.

“Are we where we want to be?” asked Fadi Mourad, DTE's director of environmental affairs. “We still have work to do.”

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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