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Plant emissions ongoing concern at Shenango coke plant on Neville Island

| Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 11:18 p.m.
Emily Harger | Tribune-Review
The Shenango Incorporated coke plant owned by DTE Energy on Neville Island Monday, June 2, 2014.

Every day, for hours at a time, inspectors at Shenango Inc. coke plant on Neville Island watch for plumes of greenish brown smoke.

The smoke is a sign that toxic chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene, are wafting into the air, potentially floating across the Ohio River and into the communities of Ben Avon, Avalon and Bellevue.

The emissions recently cost the plant $300,000 in fines and prompted it to spend more than $1 million in repairs and upgrades. It also landed the plant in court, defending a lawsuit filed by Garfield-based nonprofit the Group Against Smog and Pollution.

Since an April agreement between Shenango, which bakes coal into coke for use in steel making, and the Allegheny County Health Department, there have been five violations noted in more than 500 inspections, said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for the Allegheny County Health Department.

“We are very encouraged with the results,” Thompson said. “But with coke ovens, the problem is never fixed. It requires ongoing, continued maintenance and precise operation, and that has been the problem over the years. Things will get bad. We'll take enforcement action and things will get fixed. And as time goes on, the required maintenance gets sloppy and operation gets sloppy.”

The monitoring, done by health department inspectors and two firms hired by Shenango — one selected by the health department and one by the company — is costly but important to keep watch of an industrial process operating in a populated area, Thompson said.

The Obama administration this week continued its focus on greenhouse gas and other air pollutants by releasing the first-ever proposed limits on carbon dioxide from existing power plants. The proposed rule would have the most impact on coal-burning power plants, though Shenango and environmental officials said they are reviewing any potential effect on coke plants.

The GASP lawsuit alleges the coke battery routinely violates federal Clean Air Act standards and county regulations and that the recent consent agreement with the health department does not go far enough to address noncompliance.

“A lawsuit we feel is without merit,” said Randi Berris, a spokeswoman for DTE Energy, which bought the Shenango plant in 2008.

The lawsuit was based on data and violations recorded before the April agreement with the health department and did not take into account improvements made at the plant or its recent compliance record, said John Baillie, an attorney with GASP. The agreement addressed some of Shenango's violations but not visible emissions coming from the plant's combustion stack or oven doors. Nor did it address issues with the amount of sulfur in coke gas, the subject of a 2012 agreement.

“The real focus is how to get them into compliance,” Baillie said of the lawsuit.

GASP reported that the plant exceeded federal and county requirements on 330 days between July 26, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2013, a 431-day span. Shenango, however, said that some of the those days included a few minutes of noncompliance.

Compliance with emission regulations depends both on the amount of time smoke is visible and the smoke's observed density. A plant can be out of compliance if dense smoke is visible for as few as four minutes, according to federal and county regulations.

There are few electronic sensors near the plant monitoring emissions. Trained inspectors rely on their eyes.

“The vast majority of the time in a given day, we are in compliance,” Mike Best, Shenango plant manager, told a group of area residents during a tour of the plant on Monday.

When Shenango presents its compliance record, it uses graphs spanning from November 2011 to April 2014 that shows a plant rarely out of compliance, despite GASP's assertions.

Berris said GASP is going for the “sexy headline” but not telling the full story. Baillie said GASP is reporting violations based on federal and county guidelines.

For Best, even the five recent violations are too many. Shenango employees are instructed to report any escaping emissions, whether they violate regulations or not, so the plant can fix what might cause them.

The plant has met the upgrade and repair requirements under the agreement with the health department, Thompson said.

Last month, it completed an extension to a shed that traps emissions when the hot coke is pushed out of the ovens, into a railcar and sent to a quench tower. The extension covers about 20 feet and is the first built at any coke battery in the nation, Best said. Repairs to the existing shed are about 85 percent complete and can be done only during daily, three-hour shutdowns of the plant to protect workers.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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