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Published: Friday, 5/14/2004

Opponents, supporters spar over coking plant

A planned coking facility in Oregon is an unacceptable source of pollution - including airborne mercury - for the Lake Erie region, dozens of opponents of the project claimed during a public hearing last night.

But supporters of the project, which included Toledo, Oregon, and Lucas County elected officials along with area union representatives, countered by promoting the plant's economic benefits.

The two sides squared off against each other during a tense Ohio Environmental Protection Agency hearing at the Oregon City Municipal Building.

Henry Fleischmann, a Walbridge resident, asked Ohio EPA officials about a report that U.S. Coking Group LLC's proposed facility potentially could emit 680 pounds of mercury a year.

"You are going to make a few jobs and make thousands of people sick," he said before a standing-room only crowd of about 200. "There is so much pollution, it's pitiful."

The facility would be allowed, by permit, to discharge more than 8 million pounds of pollutants into air. It would be built between Duck and Otter creeks, where the Maumee River meets the Maumee Bay.

Last night's meeting was the public's opportunity to confront officials face to face about a 272-page draft permit the Ohio EPA quickly assembled to give the applicant a chance of being regulated under current air-pollution laws for smog-forming ozone rather than federal standards set to take effect on June 15. At that point, major industries hoping to build in several area counties - including Lucas, Wood, Allen, Monroe, and Lenawee - will face tougher restrictions. "They ramrodded this through," Mr. Fleischmann added.

Opponents criticized the Ohio EPA for rushing the permit process and blasted the project for its environmental ramifications.

"We look for leadership from our government, not a permitting mill," said lawyer Terry Lodge of Spencer Township. "I guarantee you that people profiting aren't going to be living here, breathing the air."

The coke plant would cost up to $350 million to build and would employ up to 150 people.

Toledo Mayor Jack Ford testified that the report on mercury, which was published Wednesday in The Blade, exaggerated the amount of the toxic metal that would be released into the environment.

"There will not be 680 pounds of mercury [a year] emitted, so it's just not accurate," he said.

Mayor Ford joined Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, Oregon Mayor Marge Brown, and James Hartung, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, in supporting the plant.

"If the plant doesn't build here, it will go someplace else," Mayor Brown said. "We need the tax base and we need the boost to the economy."

Several union leaders organized dozens of people to attend the public hearing and support the project.

Tom Joseph, business manager for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 50, said the region needs the jobs that will be created from the plant's construction and operation.

"I certainly have concerns about the environment, but they are using the best available technology that will greatly reduce pollution."

Oregon council President Mike Sheehy said he has been waiting for years to see such a project herald the "resurgence of the American Midwest" as an industrial powerhouse.

"I sincerely believe this is the best time, the best place, and the best project," he said. "For you folks in opposition, check the facts. Don't just listen Chicken Little, 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling.' The sky is not falling."



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