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Zoning restrictions threaten reopening of coke facility

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 8:01 p.m.

Monessen leaders' vision for the future could impact its economy today.

The city has been sued in two counties over the rezoning of an industrial tract along the Monongahela River where the proposed artist colony headquarters would be. The rezoning bans construction of buildings or industrial facilities within 600 feet of the river.

The waterfront property includes a coke processing plant owned by ArcelorMittal, which is challenging the zoning restrictions, contending they could prevent the company from restarting the facility.

Plant manager Paul Champagne said the company has pledged to invest $50 million in reopening the plant, establishing as many as 180 jobs.

Champagne said the zoning change “would substantially impede our operations” and “be detrimental to the plant's operation,” according to a transcript of the zoning hearing.

ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg-based conglomerate, operates a tin mill in Weirton, W.Va., at a plant formerly owned by Weirton Steel. It employs about 1,200 workers.

The architect who drafted Monessen's rehabilitation blueprint, Pablo Vengoechea, said the waterfront has been designated an arts and cultural center.

“We see the Rust Belt area all relying on this one industry that a long time ago left the country,” he said. “So there may be salvageable jobs, but I think you have to look beyond that.”

In a second lawsuit, the Mon Valley Sewage Authority challenges the provision that bars construction of a wastewater treatment plant to service the coke plant without a zoning variance.

Les Mlakar, special counsel to the sewage authority, said in a court filing that without a new plant along the river, no sewage treatment would be available anywhere in the city

“I want to know how the city of Monessen intends to treat its sewage, not just for the people that are here presently but any new construction. How are you going to treat the sewage when you say you can't put a facility in here?” Mlakar asked at a hearing last year.

George Christo, master redeveloper of Monessen's Redevelopment Authority, called ArcelorMittal's plans “wonderful news.” He said no one is trying to stymie a revival of the coke plant, which at its height employed 6,000 workers.

“It's a very sensitive balance that has to be achieved here,” Vengoechea said. “I think you have to look at the fact that the coke plant has been idle. There are claims that it will reopen, but even best projections say it's not going to go back to its heyday in terms of hiring.”

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