Federal and county regulators are reviewing whether recent, continuing, air pollution emissions problems at DTE Energy’s Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island put the facility in violation of its 2012 federal consent decree.
The Health Department today confirmed that it has talked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about taking new enforcement action against the 53-year-old coke works because of ongoing smokestack emissions violations that the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company hasn’t done enough to fix.
“Reopening the consent decree is a possibility,” said Jayme Graham, Health Department Air Quality Program manager. “We’re dissatisfied with the combustion controls. Emissions have not improved, they’re not satisfactory, and we’ve started conversations with the EPA and Shenango.”
Under terms of the 2012 consent agreement, DTE paid a $1.75 million penalty to settle air emissions and water discharge violations, and agreed to reduce smokestack emissions from its coke ovens.
Ms. Graham said the EPA has been “receptive” to discussions about reopening the 2012 consent decree, but such an action isn’t taken often.
“The decree was filed in federal court, so we’d have to convince a judge that it’s not accomplishing what it needs to accomplish,” Ms. Graham said. “It’s a high hurdle.”
In response, Ronal Burnette, DTE’s director of steel operations, said: "We learned about the possibility of the ACHD and EPA reopening the 2012 consent decree this morning. We would like to meet with the ACHD to discuss its plans. Shenango Incorporated remains committed to meeting environmental standards and making any necessary improvements to benefit our community."
Word that the ACHD is seeking to enforce the 2012 federal consent decree comes as the grassroots citizens group, Allegheny County Clean Air Now, holds its second annual community meeting tonight in Ben Avon. The group blames the coke works for contributing to health problems, including high childhood asthma rates in the communities of Bellevue, Avalon, Ben Avon and Avonworth, downwind from the highly industrialized island, four miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh’s Point.
Speaking to about 100 people at the meeting in the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, Michael Beck, a Ben Avon councilman, called on the EPA to "provide environmental justice" by holding Shenango to the terms of the consent decree.
"Shenango is a public nuisance endangering public health," he said.
Mr. Beck said Ben Avon, Emsworth, Avalon, and last week, Bellevue, have approved resolutions calling for strict enforcement of air quality regulations.
Lewis Braham, a resident of Bellevue, said the 70,000 residents of the communities are "living in the shadow of death," and urged EPA and ACHD administers at the meeting to revisit the consent decrees.
Also on the meeting’s agenda is the unveiling of the “Shenango Channel,” a high-tech webpage that shows real time video and pollution monitoring information, and also a discussion of the federal consent agreement and its effectiveness, said Ted Popovich, a leader of the group.
“ACCAN has hd separate discussions with the EPA and the Health Department about enforcing the consent decree,” Mr. Popovich said. “The community needs to know that things are moving forward on emissions from the coke works or we will just be stuck where we were many years ago.”
Attending from the EPA are three administrators from the Region III Air Protection Division in Philadelphia: Dave Arnold, acting director; Zelma Maldonado, associate director of enforcement; and Jim Hagedorn, a senior enforcement inspector.
Mr. Arnold said he can't discuss enforcement actions, but the agency will continue to review the consent decree.
"But what I see in the video," he said, referring to images from the "Shenango Channel" that were projected on a screen at the front of the meeting room, "is totally unacceptable."
The Shenango coking facility, purchased by DTE in 2008, has a history of air and water pollution violations that stretches back more than four decades. The facility was the subject of federal consent orders in 1980, 1993, 2000, 2005, 2012 and a county consent agreement in 2014.
Between 1990 and 2010, Shenango paid fines totaling more than $2 million. In 2014, after the facility was found in violation of county emissions limits on 330 days in a 432-day period ending Sept. 30, 2013, DTE signed another consent agreement, paid a $600,000 penalty and committed to spending $750,000 to reduce emissions from its coke ovens and quenching tower.
This summer, Shenango experienced power outages that caused four emissions events during which emergency flares burned off coke oven gas and sent black smoke billowing toward the nearby communities. The company has denied the emissions constituted violations of its permit.
Emissions from coking facilities, which bake coal at high temperatures to produce metallurgical 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, heart disease and premature death, according to the EPA and benzene is a known human carcinogen.
Don Hopey: email@example.com, 412-263-1983 or on Twitter @donhopey First Published November 19, 2015 4:38 PM