Coalition pushing for action on Neville coke plant

Chronic pollution violations draw ire


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Aaron Stubna, the owner of the Lincoln Barbershop, a cozy, three-chair, shoebox of a shop on Bellevue's main street, has had it with the smelly pollution that pours from the Shenango coke works on nearby Neville Island and often blankets his community.

And Judy McAuley, who opened her eco-friendly Happy Baby Co. store in Bellevue last fall and has lived in Bellevue or neighboring Avalon for 11 years, said those emissions have put the health of community residents, especially children, at risk.

Mr. Stubna and Ms. McAuley are two of a loose, 36-member, coalition of small business owners, environmental organizations, unions and faith leaders calling for the Allegheny County Health Department to impose much tighter controls on the coke works or shut it down until the facility can meet health-based air pollution standards.

Those demands were contained in a letter delivered to Health Department director Karen Hacker on Thursday. The department is two months into negotiating a consent agreement with Shenango to settle chronic violations of air quality standards that occurred on 330 days in a 432-day period ending Sept. 30, 2013.

"The Health Department needs to seriously address the toxic pollution coming from Shenango," Mr. Stubna said. "Coke-oven emissions are some of the most toxic around and Shenango is constantly exceeding the standards."

The 52-year-old Shenango facility, owned since 2008 by DTE Energy of Ann Arbor, Mich., has 56 coke ovens and 150 employees. It's located on highly industrialized Neville Island five miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh's Point. Bellevue and Avalon are downwind.

The facility has a long history of air pollution problems pockmarked by federal consent orders in 1980, 1993 and 2000, a county consent order in 2005, and a joint federal-county consent order in 2012. Those enforcement actions imposed fines totaling more than $3.75 million since 1990, and all contain requirements that Shenango bring its air pollution emissions under control.

Randi Berris, a DTE spokeswoman, said the company was aware of Shenango's "legacy" when it purchased the facility and has been working with the county Health Department to improve the plant's performance.

Mr. Stubna is skeptical. "How is Shenango allowed to pay fine after fine for these numerous violations and not get shut down?" he said. "The state will shut down my barbershop for minor violations like not changing my barbicide [the blue liquid that cleans the combs]. What Shenango is doing down there is a lot more dangerous to our health and needs to be addressed."

Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have also conclusively documented the links between air pollution exposure and certain diseases, including heart and lung diseases.

Emissions from coking facilities, which bake coal at high temperatures to produce coke used in making steel, are among the most toxic of industrial emissions. The Shenango coke works, which began operations in 1962, produces more than 300,000 tons of coke a year and annually emits hundreds of tons of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, small airborne particles and volatile organic compounds, including benzene.

Small airborne particles can contribute to respiratory problems, lung damage and premature death, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and benzene is a known human carcinogen.

A 2010 Post-Gazette series, "Mapping Mortality," found that based on state Department of Health mortality statistics, the death rate from respiratory disease in Bellevue from 2000 through 2008 was 46 percent higher than the national average and mortality from heart disease was 40 percent higher. Lung cancer rates were 55 percent above the national average. Avalon mortality rates were also higher than the national averages by 21.5 percent for respiratory disease, 28.7 percent for lung cancer and almost 15 percent for heart disease.

The Rev. Dennis Buranosky, at the Church of the Assumption, a Roman Catholic parish in Bellevue, said he sees links between high air pollution levels and many of his trips to the cemetery.

"I see more and more of my parishioners who never smoked dying of lung cancer," said Father Buranosky, who signed the letter for his parish. "I probably bury 65 people a year and cancer and lung disease are big causes."

The coalition's letter to the Health Department cited recent state Department of Health statistics showing, "children in the Northgate School District have the highest incidence of asthma in the state -- more than double the state average."

Ms. McAuley said numerous studies show exposure to air pollutants can damage the health of pregnant women, babies and children, and result in poor birth outcomes such as low birth weight, premature birth and certain birth defects. Air pollution is also linked to higher incidences of asthma and allergies in children.

"As parents we worry about the products we expose our babies to from the time they are in the womb," said Ms. McAuley, owner of the baby store in Bellevue.

"But while a pregnant woman living in Bellevue can choose not to paint her baby's nursery to avoid the toxic fumes ... she can't do anything to avoid breathing the polluted air where she live without some help from the Health Department."

Shutdown not an option

Jim Thompson, the Health Department's deputy director of environmental health, acknowledged Friday that Shenango's compliance record is "horrendous," and he "shares the frustration" expressed by the group. But he said shutting down the coking operation is not an option under consideration in the ongoing consent order negotiations because a shutdown would damage the coke ovens, probably beyond repair.

"Coke operations require a tremendous amount of ongoing maintenance and upkeep and the previous owner of Shenango didn't have the money to keep up good operation," Mr. Thompson said. "DTE had fallen into that same trap, and going forward we will be taking every step we can to ensure they will comply."

He said DTE has already taken some corrective actions to reduce fugitive emissions of coke oven gases and opacity (smoke) violations, and demonstrated improved compliance over the past three weeks. He said the consent order is about 90 percent completed and expects it will be completed in three weeks.

Shenango's emissions were a contributing factor to Avalon, a municipality just north of Bellevue, having the dirtiest air in Allegheny County in 2010, according to Health Department monitoring data.

Ms. Berris, DTE's spokeswoman, cited readings from the county's Avalon monitor that meet air-quality standards for the last three years as "proof we've improved." Mr. Thompson said there were "a number of factors," including Shenango's improved performance, that contributed to the lower monitoring numbers.

Ms. Berris said DTE has invested $8 million for capital improvements at Shenango since it bought the facility, and has plans to spend a total of $34 million there through 2017.

"We've made changes that will have a lasting impact on the health of the area," Ms. Berris said. "We acknowledge we still have work to do, and we're working to reach our goal of being 100 percent in compliance with county, state and federal standards."

DTE Energy owns and operates one other coking facility, the EES coke works in southwest Detroit, which it purchased in October 2004. In 2007 the EPA filed a notice of violation against DTE for emissions violations. Ms. Berris said the company made significant improvements to its emissions controls to achieve compliance.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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