Bellevue businesses push for Shenango coke plant to meet air standards or close

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A coalition of Bellevue area groups, organizations, small businesses and unions has called on the Allegheny County Health Department to require the Shenango coke works on Neville Island to reduce its unhealthy emissions or close.

The demands were contained in a letter from the 36-member coalition that was delivered today to health department Director Dr. Karen Hacker.

According to the coalition’s review of county compliance records, the coke works, which has a 35-year history of air pollution violations, was in violation of county air quality standards on 330 days in a 432-day period ending Sept. 30, 2013.

The Health Department is negotiating with Shenango to settle that batch of violations. The coalition’s letter, which cites high local asthma rates, urges the health department to require Shenango to comply with federal regulations or close the plant if it cannot. The letter also asks that Shenango be required to limit production on bad air days, and that the health department impose increasingly higher fines if the violations continue.

“How is Shenango allowed to pay fine after fine for these numerous violations and not get shut down?” asked Aaron Stubna, the owner of the Lincoln Barbershop in Bellevue and one of numerous Bellevue businesses that signed the letter.

“The state will shut down my barbershop for minor violations like not changing my barbarcide, the blue liquid that cleans the combs,” he said, at a news conference held in his barbershop today. “What Shenango is doing down there is a lot more dangerous to our health and needs to be addressed.”

Dr. Hacker was not available this morning to respond to questions about the letter or the status of negotiations with Shenango. Dave Zazac, a health department spokesman, said the department will review the letter and respond to the organizations, unions and businesses individually.

Randi Berris, a spokeswoman with Shenango's parent company DTE, confirmed that the company is in negotiations with the county about its air emissions, adding, “We’re working on our long-term environmental performance as we have been doing since we purchased the plant in 2008.”

Shenango’s air and water pollution history is pockmarked with federal consent order agreements in 1980, 1993 and 2000, and a county consent order in 2005. Between 1990 and 2010 the company paid fines totaling more than $2 million. In 2012, Shenango paid a $1.75 million penalty to settle persistent air and water pollution violations under a joint federal, state and county consent agreement that required the company to reduce the illegal emissions from its 56 coke ovens.

Coke works emissions are among the most toxic of industrial emissions and were a contributing factor to Avalon, located downwind from the Shenango operations and other Neville Island industries, having the dirtiest air in Allegheny County in 2010, according to health department monitoring data.

Carolyn Laquatra, president of the Bellevue Business Center, which promotes business opportunities in the municipality, said the air quality problems make it harder to interest businesses in locating there.

“It’s a business and health issue,” said Ms. Laquatra, “We want to attract businesses rather than drive them away, but they’ve been cited time and time again.”

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. First Published March 20, 2014 11:53 AM

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