Elusive compliance: Allegheny County must stay on top of Shenango

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Last week the Allegheny County Health Department and Shenango Inc., which operates a coke plant on Neville Island, reached a consent agreement to force the chronic polluter to curb its emissions. The deal includes a stiff fine, the addition of more anti-pollution equipment and tougher county oversight.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald called it “an unprecedented agreement which ends Shenango’s non-compliance.”

If only.

The reality is this coke plant, which is owned by Detroit, Mich.-based DTE Energy, has been under five consent orders since 1980, yet it still fouls the air particularly in communities along Ohio River Boulevard. Prompting the new order was a dreadful streak of noncompliance: Shenango violated clean air standards on 330 days of the 432 consecutive days ending last Sept. 30.

DTE, which bought the plant in 2008 and has been the owner for only the consent order of 2012, has made $8 million in improvements to the facility and says it will spend $34 million there through 2017. Add to that the $600,000 civil penalty from last week’s agreement, $300,000 of which may be spent on more effective particulate collection. That’s a steep fine but of questionable potency to a company with profits last year of $668 million.

That’s why the county must be vigilant in using a key provision of the order. The agreement provides for daily assessment of the plant’s pollution control performance and the ability to force adjustments in production levels in the event of noncompliance. This is a provision with teeth, but only if accompanied by tough county oversight.

The neighbors in the towns near Shenango coke have tolerated the clean air violations and the high disease mortality rates long enough. They deserve real action and results from public regulators.

After the county announced the agreement, health department director Karen Hacker said “we are guardedly optimistic” that this will permanently fix the plant’s pollution issues. How long before the community’s optimism does not have to be guarded?

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