The best American companies do right not only by their owners and employees but also by their communities. It’s no secret that people near the Shenango coke works don’t consider it a good neighbor, and history shows why.
For 52 years the plant on Neville Island has made coke for the steel industry, and for most of that time it has been one of Allegheny County’s biggest air polluters. Shenango was subject to three federal consent orders between 1980 and 2000, a county order in 2005 and a joint federal-county order in 2012.
The orders came with the usual fines and decrees that Shenango take action to curb emissions. Now DTE Energy, which owns and operates the 56 coke ovens with 150 employees, will soon face a new county consent order for Shenango’s violations of clean air standards on 330 days of the 432 consecutive days ending last Sept. 30.
It’s no surprise that the residents and businesses of Avalon and Bellevue, downwind from Shenango, expect only the same old same old from county regulators. Yet this is not a case of environmental extremists picking on an upstanding company just going about its business. It’s a matter of life and breath.
The Post-Gazette’s 2010 “Mapping Mortality” series, based on state health department statistics, showed that the mortality rate from respiratory disease in Bellevue between 2000 and 2008 was 46 percent higher than the national average. The town’s rates for lung cancer were 55 percent above the U.S. average. The health numbers for Avalon were almost as troubling.
That’s why it is understandable that a coalition in the Bellevue area of groups, businesses, unions and faith leaders last week sent a letter to county health director Karen Hacker asking her department to force Shenango to reduce its emissions or shut down.
Although a health department official acknowledged to the Post-Gazette’s Don Hopey that the coke plant’s compliance record is “horrendous,” he said that closing Shenango is not an option in the consent order negotiations. No doubt the Detroit, Mich.-based energy company wants to stay in business on Neville Island. DTE Energy reaped $668 million in profit in 2013, some of it borne on the smoke and toxins sent to people living along the Ohio River Boulevard corridor. All of which means the company is big enough and successful enough to play by the rules.
DTE likes to point out that it has made $8 million in capital improvements since it bought the plant in 2008 and that it plans to spend $34 million there through 2017. All told, that’s $4.2 million a year over the 10-year period — pocket change when its profit is two-thirds of a billion dollars in one year.
DTE Energy should be doing far more to cut pollution at Shenango, and the Allegheny County Health Department should get tough, once and for all, on its “horrendous” record. To maintain jobs and commerce, the county has been patient enough with this business. Now it’s time for public officials to act on behalf of the scores of other businesses — and countless people — being hurt by Shenango’s chronic noncompliance.