ERIE (AP) – State environmental regulators are moving to shut down a coke plant in northwestern Pennsylvania, citing “years of numerous repetitive environmental violations.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said Monday it has denied Erie Coke Corp.’s application to renew its operating permit and filed a complaint in Erie County Court to shut down the plant.

There had been “persistent complaints” from the community for more than a decade, Environmental Secretary Patrick McDonnell said, and Erie Coke had been given many opportunities to address the violations.

“Unfortunately, the frequency and severity of Erie Coke’s violations have only increased during our review of its permit renewal and the operator has offered no tangible causes for its non-compliance nor viable plans to assure future compliance,” McDonnell said in a statement.

The department, he said, “has made the rare decision to not only deny the company’s application to renew its operating permit, but also seek a court injunction to shut down the facility.”

The state’s move came as “quite a shock,” said Ed Nesselbeck, Erie Coke’s environmental director.

The company, he said, had been working hard on a detailed compliance plan for the past six months and submitted it in April. Officials had been meeting regularly with the department, he said, and another such meeting was planned Tuesday.

“We’ve taken on a herculean effort and thought we were making great progress,” he said.

Nesselbeck told WICU-TV last week that environmental compliance “though challenging, will be doable” and asked for “cooperation and patience” from all stakeholders.

“The plant didn’t get this way overnight, and we will not achieve our goal by tomorrow,” he said. “All the same, I am very optimistic.”

The plant, which produces coke, a key ingredient in the steelmaking process, employs 125 people. A threatened shutdown in 2010 was averted through a court-ordered settlement.

Erie Coke has had violations since the 2010 consent decree terminated. Beginning in June 2017, according to DEP, it started to identify an increasing number of air quality violations at the facility. 

According to DEP:

• On Feb. 4, 2019, DEP issued an order to the company requiring it to complete an investigation into the cause of recent increases in air quality violations associated with the operation of the pushing emission control system and increased opacity of emissions from the coke oven battery stack. In addition, the order required Erie Coke to submit a plan for the installation of a back-up hydrogen sulfide removal system to prevent the combustion of coke oven gas, which contains excess quantities of hydrogen sulfide.

• On March 3, Erie Coke experienced a large release from a wastewater tank on the property. DEP estimates that more than 30,000 gallons of wastewater were released from the tank that provides pretreatment of wastewater prior to its conveyance to the City of Erie sewage treatment plant. The wastewater was suspected to contain contaminants from the coking process including benzene, cyanide, naphthalene, ammonia and several other constituents. Erie Coke recovered contaminated water and material from the spill and repaired the wastewater tank, but DEP did not allow the company to continue using the tank.

• On May 6, DEP placed Erie Coke on the air quality compliance docket, for nearly 80 unresolved air quality violations over the past two years. The Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act and DEP regulations prevented DEP from renewing Erie Coke’s federal Title V operating permit if the violations were not resolved and until DEP determined that Erie Coke had the intention and ability to comply with the Air Pollution Control Act and the federal Clean Air Act.

• On June 4, DEP sent a notice of violation with more than a dozen violations based on a May 15 inspection. Because Erie Coke has failed to adequately demonstrate an ability or its intent to comply, DEP issued the denial of Erie Coke’s application to renew its Title V Operating Permit.

Staff and wire reports