7 members of Pittsburgh-area citizens pollution panel quit in protest

Group says Shenango coke works failing to address problems at Neville Island plant

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Members of the Good Neighbor Working Group, a committee set up by Shenango coke works owner DTE Energy Services Inc. to address concerns about air pollution emissions from the Neville Island plant, say they are quitting because it isn't living up to its name.

Seven of 10 community members of the 2-year-old citizens advisory panel have signed a two-page resignation letter that states the company has made "unsatisfactory progress" in reducing the emissions and the panel has "served more as a tool to placate the public than to address the real and compelling regional health concerns."

They plan to deliver the letter to the front gate of DTE's coking facility this morning, said Karen Grzywinski, an Ohio Township resident who has been part of the working group since its inception and is resigning. The company Monday postponed a working group meeting scheduled for today until Jan. 7.

"I'm happy the monitors say air is getting better in Avalon, but I'm still seeing a problem with no real significant improvement," said Ms. Grzywinski, a board member of the Group Against Smog and Pollution and a certified "smoke reader," trained to identify certain emissions problems. "At this point we're just being used by the company for [good] publicity."

She said relations between the company and most members of the working group have soured because the company-hired meeting moderator controls the agenda, selectively records meeting minutes to show the company in a positive light and refuses to hold any meetings outside the company gates where a wider public audience could attend.

Ms. Grzywinski said the last straw occurred earlier this year when it took the company 12 weeks to replace a valve. The delay caused emissions violations on more than four out of every 10 pushes -- the process of removing coke from the ovens -- from April through July.

"Our local residents' health was impacted during the 12 weeks it took to fix that valve," she said. "We submitted questions about that and were told the company wouldn't answer them. I don't think that's acceptable."

A University of Pittsburgh report released last month identified coke oven emissions from the Shenango facility as among the reasons for higher cancer risks among populations living downwind from Neville Island.

In their resignation letter, working group members called on DTE Energy to issue a timeline for reaching at least 95 percent compliance with Allegheny County Health Department air standards, increase coking times to reduce emissions, decrease emissions on air quality alert days and hold semi-annual public meeting outside of the plant gates.

The Shenango coke works opened in 1962. Its one coke oven battery contains 56 ovens and can produce approximately 380,000 tons of coke, a necessary component of the steelmaking process, a year.

It has a 30-year history of air pollution problems that have resulted in federal consent orders in 1980, 1993 and 2000, and a county consent order in 2005. DTE Energy of Ann Arbor, Mich., purchased the facility in April 2008, and in July 2012 agreed under terms of another consent order to pay a $1.75 million penalty to settle air and water pollution violations, some dating to 2005.

Randi Berris, a DTE Energy spokeswoman, said working group members hadn't informed the company of their concerns and challenged the group's charges that no progress has been made. She identified three projects designed to improve stormwater and wastewater handling at the plant, and an on-going effort to fix oven walls that has resulted in reduced combustion stack emissions.

She said the company has spent $8 million on capital improvements to the facility since 2008 and plans to spend another $34 million through 2017.

"Our goal is to be 100 percent in compliance with all local, state and federal requirements," she said. "We're not there yet. We still have some issues but we are addressing them and are committed to operating that facility."

Jayme Graham, the county health department's acting air program chief, confirmed that Shenango continues to have air emissions violations and has paid additional fines during the first two quarters of 2013, but couldn't say how much.

She said county inspectors, who visit the facility daily, have noted fewer emissions violations.

"It's steadily improving," she said. "It's not satisfactory yet, either for us or the company. There are still problems."

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

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