Coke Plants Are Still Among the Top Polluters in Allegheny County

  • U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works. Photo: Tom Prigg

October 30, 2015

A new report out this week identified a pair of coke plants in the Pittsburgh area as two of the region’s top polluters.

U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and DTE Energy's Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island were named to the ‘Toxic Ten’ by the environmental group PennEnvironment. The list details the highest emitters of hazardous air pollutants in densely populated parts of Allegheny County.

Both plants have been under the watchful eye of regulators for years.

“These two have always been a priority for us,” said Jim Thompson, Deputy Director of Environmental Health at the Allegheny County Health Department.

Coke is a key component of steelmaking. It is made by baking coal in oxygen-deprived ovens at high temperatures to drive out impurities. The resulting emissions can include particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants, like the carcinogen benzene.

Both Pittsburgh-area coke plants have recently signed consent agreements with the county, and both have exceeded pollution requirements outlined in those agreements. This has angered nearby residents who live downwind of Shenango's plant.

“Basically, it seems like you pollute, you pay a fine. And you pollute, and you pay a fine," says Leah Andrascik of Avalon, who smells odors and sees smoke come from the plant. "That's not helping the health of the community. You need to do something to stop them from polluting." 

Shenango was fined $300,000 by the Allegheny County Health Department in a 2014 consent agreement for emissions violations and agreed to pay $1 million in upgrades to environmental equipment.

That agreement came after the county found the plant had numerous violations for excessive emissions and for flaring or venting gas to the atmosphere. A review of the company’s compliance record by an environmental group found the company was out of compliance 330 days in a 432-day period in 2012 and 2013.

The county health department's Jim Thompson says Shenango’s overall performance has improved since then. But he said the plant’s improvements have "levelled off," and the department is weighing further enforcement actions. The plant was out of compliance 20 times during the second quarter of 2015, according to a review of county records by the Group Against Smog and Pollution. 

“We believe more actions are necessary and we are currently reviewing how we should proceed,” Thompson said. “While the violation rate has greatly improved, we are still seeing violations at a lower rate.”

Thompson said the plant’s recent violations are related to emissions from three parts of the facility: its combustion stack, oven doors and charging ports, where coal is put into an oven to create coke. "It's really ongoing maintenance issues," Thompson said. 

DTE Energy spokeswoman Erica Donerson said in a statement that since the company acquired the plant in 2008, it has improved environmental performance through equipment upgrades. The company plans to spend a total of  $41 million on the plant through 2018.

“The funds will be used for operational upgrades that will further improve water and air quality, including wastewater treatment, storm water management and air pollution controls,” Donerson said. "We want the community to also keep in mind that violations don’t generally equate to health or environmental impacts."

Thompson said the county keeps air monitors downwind of the plant, and those monitors show that ambient concentrations of pollutants like particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide and benzene are all below federal clean air standards and guidelines.

“We spend an awful lot of time and effort to make sure Shenango is not endangering public health, and it isn’t endangering public health,” Thompson said.

Donerson said the PennEnvironment report relied in part on an EPA dataset from 2005 which has not yet been updated. New data, she said, would show the region's air quality has improved.

PennEnvironment’s “Toxic Ten” report drew largely from EPA’s 2013 Toxic Release Inventory. It found nearly 450,000 residents in the county lived within three miles of one of the 10 biggest sources of hazardous air pollutants.

"Allegheny County has some of the worst air pollution in the United States," says Jeff Inglis, a policy analyst with Frontier Group who co-authored the report. "Our analysis found that a small number of industrial facilities are releasing large amounts of toxic pollution into the air." 

Thompson said U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works—the largest coke plant in the United States—has also improved its emissions since signing a consent agreement in 2014.

As part of the agreement, the plant agreed to install specialized ductwork to eliminate fugitive emissions. The plant's deadline to install the equipment is October 31.