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Shenango Inc. begins shutdown of Neville Island coke plant

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, 2:15 p.m.
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. DTE has started a months-long process to shut down the facility.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. DTE has started a months-long process to shut down the facility.
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. DTE has started a months-long process to shut down the facility.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. DTE has started a months-long process to shut down the facility.
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, when it was still in operation.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, when it was still in operation.
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam Wednesday,  Jan. 6, 2016.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
DTE Energy's Shenango coke works on Neville Island emits plumes of steam Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016.

The final cloud of white steam billowed from Shenango Inc.'s quench tower Wednesday evening as the Neville Island coke plant began a months-long process of shutting down.

Employees pushed the final load of superheated coal out of the battery at Shenango, ending decades of coke production on the Ohio River island.

It was Harry Guest's last day at the plant. He worked as a pusher, part of the crew that moved the cooked coke out of the oven and onto a cart to be cooled under a torrent of water. He said he hadn't started looking for a new job.

“I've been there 39 years, two months and three days. Never been laid off. Never missed a day,” Guest, of Green Tree, said. “It's an old battery. They don't want to put any money into it.”

Michigan-based DTE Energy, which bought Shenango in 2008, announced in December it would close the plant by mid-January, citing a drop in demand for coke by North American steel manufacturers. The company spent $22 million on improvements since buying the plant and had planned to spend $41 million more before DTE decided instead to shutter it.

Stephanie Beres, a spokeswoman for DTE, said the plant encountered fewer delays than anticipated as it prepared to shut down.

“As has always been the case, our employees have risen to the occasion — many working over the holidays to ensure we would have a smooth and safe shutdown,” Beres said in a statement.

DTE halted production at the plant. Remaining coke will be shipped out over the next few weeks. The boilers will be the last things to shut down, Beres said.

“There are no firm plans yet regarding the future of the property or the equipment inside or outside the plant,” Beres said. “There is much work to be done, and economic redevelopment will be a key focus.”

Charlie Leonard, a United Steelworkers staff representative at the Neville Island plant, doesn't expect DTE to shut down the plant completely until April but said Wednesday was the final day of work for many employees.

Workers leaving the plant said it was hard to say goodbye to their co-workers. Some said it will be difficult for lifelong coke workers to find jobs elsewhere.

Shuttering Shenango will affect 173 employees, including 37 nonunion workers, DTE said in December. DTE said it will provide employees 60 days of pay plus severance packages including compensation, health care benefits and outplacement assistance. They will have preference for DTE job openings.

Leonard said he knew of no workers who had found a job.

Thaddeus Popovich, who lives across the river from Shenango in Ben Avon and is a co-founder of Allegheny County Clean Air Now, said he feels bad for the employees losing their jobs, but he expects air quality to improve.

“It has to make a difference,” Popovich said. “Now I don't have to worry about sticking my nose out the door, and maybe I'll do my exercise locally instead of going to North Park. That's how dramatic a change it is.”

Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for the Allegheny County Health Department, said he doesn't expect a huge improvement in overall air quality but does expect the department to receive fewer nuisance odor complaints. The health department will continue monitoring air quality in the area.

Shenango has a history of violations related to air pollution limits. The company has paid millions of dollars in fines to federal, state and county agencies. The Group Against Smog and Pollution, a Garfield-based air quality nonprofit, sued Shenango in federal court over emission limit violations. A judge dismissed the lawsuit. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal Wednesday.

Thompson said the Health Department and Shenango will work on a final consent order in coming months to finalize fines and violations. Beres said DTE has no outstanding fines with the county.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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