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Neville Island coke plant lost all power in lead-up to fire, manager says

| Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, 10:27 p.m.

Both sources feeding power to the Shenango Inc. coke plant on Neville Island failed during thunderstorms and high winds in late May, stranding a cart that loads coal above an open oven.

Superheated coke gas escaped, setting the cart ablaze, Mike Zowacki, the plant manager, said Wednesday.

“A lot of things went wrong that evening with the power,” Zowacki said.

Zowacki and officials from DTE Energy, the Michigan-based company that bought Shenango in 2008, provided details about the power outage at a time when the company is trying to spread the word about upgrades and projects at the Neville Island plant.

The operator of the cart, called a Larry car, escaped without injury as it burst into flames. Fire destroyed the cart. It took three months and $2.2 million to rebuild it.

“It's devastating when you lose complete power in your plant,” Ronald Burnette, DTE's director of steel operations, told Tribune-Review reporters.

Duquesne Light, which provides power to the plant, repaired equipment believed to be at fault after the May outage, but problems continued. Shenango lost power four more times in June, July and August.

Duquesne Light did not return calls for comment.

“The bottom line is that infrastructure has to be upgraded,” Burnette said, adding Duquesne Light is working with Shenango.

The Allegheny County Health Department and Allegheny County Clean Air Now, a group with many members living across the river from Neville Island, keep a close eye on Shenango. Clean Air Now is quick to criticize the plant.

The Health Department has fined Shenango and demanded it cut emissions and make improvements through a court order.

Zowacki and other DTE officials hope to speak at Clean Air Now's annual meeting Thursday in Ben Avon.

“Why aren't things better? Because there are some pretty stinky days here,” said Thaddeus Popovich, co-founder of Clean Air Now and a Ben Avon resident. “We think the company, DTE Energy, is just looking to run it into the ground and then leave.”

Burnette said that is far from true. DTE has invested “tens of millions of dollars” in Shenango and plans to invest more. He said the plant stresses safety, for employees and the environment.

Jayme Graham, the Health Department's Air Quality Program manager, said Shenango has complied with county regulations and met expectations in some areas, but lags in others.

She expressed concern about the condition of the plant's combustion stack.

Zowacki said the stack and other parts of the plant undergo routine maintenance to repair damage caused in the normal course of making coke.

The Health Department is still investigating the power outages, Graham said. It has hired a consultant to review Shenango's emergency procedures to ensure the plant did what it could to prevent coke gas and other pollution from escaping.

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

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