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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2007

Just who would own proposed coke plant?

This just in: U.S. Coking Group may not be U.S. Coking Group at all.

It may have quietly - with no fanfare or announcement - changed its name to be in sync with its proposed FDS Coke Plant two years ago. Or maybe earlier than that. Or maybe not at all.

Confused? Join the club.

From Day One, the lack of ownership disclosure has frustrated people during this era of Homeland Security.

Are there foreign investors? If so, who are they, where are they from, and how much of a stake do they have in what is now touted as an $800 million project?

Before we get into that, let me pass along something that happened Wednesday night while talking to Lance Traves, the group's environmental consultant.

I had just noticed - I don't know why this didn't click in before - that the consortium was identified on a recent document as FDS Coke Plant LLC, as in limited liability corporation.

Naturally, the question arose: When did that happen? In announcing the permit on June 14, 2004, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement that said the document had been issued to "U.S. Coking Group LLC for the construction of the proposed FDS Coke plant in Oregon."

Agency spokesmen have referred to the consortium as U.S. Coking Group during numerous public hearings and interviews, as have others. Despite all of the articles that have appeared - and, trust me, I get an earful when an "i" isn't dotted or a "t" isn't crossed - nobody ever said anything about this.

Mr. Traves said the name was listed as FDS Coke Plant LLC when the permit was modified in 2005 but would not elaborate or say if that's when it started. Or why.

So, on Thursday, I contacted the consortium's designated spokesman, Francis X. Lyons, a Chicago attorney who once served as the U.S. EPA's Midwest regional chief.

He said he'd need to run that by his client before commenting.

Which begs the question: Just who is his client?

While Mr. Lyons concedes I'm raising "fair and legitimate questions," it's unclear when (hopefully, I don't have to use the word "if") we'll ever find out.

Oregon Councilman Sandy Bihn, an environmental activist and opponent of Whoever They Are, has told me she'd have an easier time accepting the project if she knew who was behind it.

DaimlerChrysler. General Motors. Ford. People know who those companies are, even if they're not thrilled about having an auto plant built in their neighborhood.

Not so with Whoever They Are.

"Never in Ohio history has the government at all levels gone to such extremes to run interference for a project whose backers' identity remains concealed from the public," Sandy Buchanan, Ohio Citizen Action executive director, said in an April 26, 2004, letter addressed to 49 public officials.

The Ohio EPA and the Ohio secretary of state's office have explained to me that ownership disclosure is not required unless a project applicant intends to bury hazardous waste. Translation: You don't have to identify yourself if you want a permit to discharge pollutants into the air and water. Whoever They Are has a permit to discharge into the air.

Last week, a reader put it like this: Pretend you need an oxygen tank.

You get one offer from a company that tells you who it is, how its tanks are built, who's funding its research, and how you can find out more. The other won't divulge squat.

Who are you gonna buy from?



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