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Allegheny County Health Department tells Shenango to fix problems at Neville Island coke plant

| Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, 11:00 p.m.

The Allegheny County Health Department has told a Neville Island coke plant to fix problems that caused power outages and flares of potentially harmful emissions.

Shenango Inc., under court order to cut emissions and upgrade pollution controls, lost power at least four times between June and August, leading to violations, said Jim Thompson, the Health Department's deputy director of environmental quality.

“That's too many,” Thompson said. “It's becoming a regular occurrence.”

Michigan-based DTE Energy, which bought Shenango in 2008, has a different view. Erica Donerson, a spokeswoman for DTE, said violations did not occur during the outages, but the company is going to make changes anyway.

“We followed all permit and regulatory requirements,” Donerson said in an email. “We're working with our utility supplier to improve systems and ensure electric reliability moving forward.”

Some of Shenango's neighbors across the Ohio River attended the county Board of Health meeting last week to voice concern about the power outages, large flares and heavy smoke at the facility.

“This plant scares the hell out of me,” Thaddeus Popovich, a Ben Avon resident and vocal critic of Shenango, told the board.

Someone fishing along the Ohio noticed the flare and smoke in June and told Allegheny County Clean Air Now, a citizens group watching Shenango. The group learned of other outages from the Health Department.

Shenango has a secondary, emergency power line feeding the plant and switches to it when the main line fails, Thompson said. The momentary outage shuts down the plant's boilers, which power large exhaust fans that push coke gas from the ovens to a treatment process. It takes 35 to 40 minutes to restart the boilers, Thompson said.

The boiler shutdown causes the coke gas to flare at the plant, sending flames and heavy smoke into the air, Thompson said.

The flares burn off about 95 percent of the harmful pollution in the coke gas, but the 5 percent that escapes can contain particulate matter, benzene and other harmful chemicals, Thompson said.

“Rightfully so, the residents should be concerned about this,” Thompson said.

The county asked for a compliance plan from the company showing how it will fix the power problems and awaits a response.

“If we don't hear soon, we are going to follow up unilaterally on an enforcement action. We'll tell them what they need to do,” Thompson said.

Shenango could be fined. The county and Shenango reached an agreement in April 2014 under which the coke plant paid a $300,000 fine and spent more than $1 million to make pollution control upgrades. County and third-party inspectors monitor the facility daily.

Violations appeared to increase in 2015 after a drop following the 2014 agreement, according to data provided by the Health Department and analyzed by the Group Against Smog and Pollution, a Garfield-based nonprofit.

Donerson said Shenango meets or exceeds all compliance standards.

GASP sued Shenango in May 2014, claiming that emissions from oven doors and combustion stacks violate the federal Clean Air Act and county standards and that federal, state and local officials have done enough to stop the pollution.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in March; GASP is appealing the ruling.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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