A Chicago-area coke plant being held up as a model for the FDS Coke Plant in Oregon is listed in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records as one of the Midwest's largest mercury emitters and has been cited by that government agency for potential "high priority" violations of the Clean Air Act for another major pollutant, sulfur dioxide.
The Indiana Harbor Coke Plant is defending itself from 10 federal EPA violations that stem largely from that facility's preconstruction estimates for sulfur dioxide emissions. The violations were filed against the plant in 2002, four years after it began operating in 1998.
There are no violations for its mercury output. But skeptics analyzing the FDS permit are questioning whether technology for the Oregon project has advanced far enough in six years to avoid having it emit comparable amounts of that toxic metal in the Toledo area someday.
Oregon Mayor Marge Brown, who was part of a local contingent that visited the Indiana Harbor site on June 10, told The Blade Friday she was not aware of that facility's environmental violations until she got back.
But she said it hasn't changed her high opinion of what she saw - and what she didn't smell.
She and Ken Filipiak, Oregon city administrator, said they were impressed by Indiana Harbor's lack of odors during full operation.
Ms. Brown said she views the 10 outstanding U.S. EPA violations as being akin to speeding tickets: They'll encourage the Indiana Harbor facility to do better.
"I still have no misgivings," she said.
Mr. Filipiak said that what they witnessed at Indiana Harbor was "the next generation of coke facilities."
Nestled on a man-made peninsula in East Chicago, Ind., that coke plant is one of only two operating in America with "nonrecovery" designs that are considered far less polluting than coke plants of yesteryear.
Unlike their predecessors, the newer-generation coke plants don't attempt to recover harsh chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene for sale to other manufacturers. Instead, captured steam is used to power the facilities, said George Bradley, Jr., Indiana Harbor safety, health, and environment manager.
The design is a "very good concept" because negative pressure draws pollutants into the plant and burns them. "Theoretically, there should be no emissions coming out," said Dave Sampias, an Indiana Department of Environmental Management inspector assigned to the site.
But that's not what has happened at Indiana Harbor, which heralded its plant in a company report four years ago as the first of its kind in the world.
Both Indiana Harbor and the other operating coke plant using the nonrecovery design - the Jewell Coke Co. plant in Vasant, Va. - were listed as the No. 2 mercury emitters in their respective states in 2001, according to figures the two facilities reported themselves under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's toxic release inventory program.
Mercury is a serious concern because of its effect on the human brain and its development. Long one of the primary causes behind fish consumption advisories, mercury falls from the sky and pollutes fish as it settles into the water. Great Lakes scientists have said its effect is more acute on fish in shallower bodies of water, such as western Lake Erie.
It is also one of seven toxins that Great Lakes governors agreed in 1988 to restrict by requiring all new major sources to install the most efficient pollution-control equipment on the market at a given time. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Environment Canada have questioned whether U.S. Coking Group LLC has agreed to do that with the FDS Coke Plant.
Vince Hellwig, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality air quality division chief, told The Blade that the Ohio EPA's final decision - a 36-pound cap on mercury emissions for the FDS plant - indicates that his agency's concerns that mercury emission limits be lowered were taken seriously.
Figures reported by Indiana Harbor show the coke plant emitted 719 pounds of mercury in 2001 and 669 pounds of mercury in 2000, the two most recent figures available. Those numbers are slightly less than the 755 pounds of mercury discharged in 2001 by Detroit Edison Co.'s coal-fired power plant in Monroe, one of the nation's largest power stations.
"In any new technology, there's going to be bugs that have to be worked out. Right now, Indiana Harbor Coke is addressing some of those issues," Mr. Sampias said.
Mr. Bradley said the facility plans to revise mercury calculations that it turned over to the U.S. EPA in past years because it now believes they may have been miscalculated, based on more recent sampling. "We have recent stack test data that shows emissions that would be less than 190 pounds," he said.
But even if Indiana Harbor's mercury output was actually 190 pounds a year in 2001, the facility would have been Indiana's 11th largest mercury emitter that year, U.S. EPA records show.
Figures for 2002 are expected to be released later this month, Suzanne Ackerman, U.S. EPA spokesman, said.
Companies that wish to present evidence for revising previously submitted numbers are not currently bound by a time limit, although the U.S. EPA is considering such a limit in the future, Ms. Ackerman said.
"It sounds like they [Indiana Harbor] are borrowing from the FDS playbook," scoffed Alex Sagady, a private environmental consultant from Michigan hired by the Sierra Club to challenge the FDS permit.
His remark was in reference to U.S. Coking Group's steadfast assertion that its actual mercury emissions from the FDS facility would be a fraction of the potential 680 pounds that had been cited in the draft permit recently issued by the Ohio EPA in an express approval process designed to meet a federal deadline.
The Jewell coke plant in Virginia, which is much smaller than the Indiana Harbor facility, emitted 331 pounds of mercury in 2001, records show.
The Indiana Harbor and Jewell plants are owned by Sun Coke Co., of Knoxville, Tenn., a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Sunoco Inc. Sun Coke is in the process of building a third nonrecovery coke plant in the tiny Ohio River valley town of Haverhill, Ohio.
The proposed FDS Coke Plant in Oregon could become the nation's fourth nonrecovery coke plant, helping to fill a void for metallurgical coke for steel production. Most of the nation's former coking jobs have been lost overseas because of pollution generated by that industry.
Metallurgical coke differs from petroleum coke in that it is a primary ingredient of steel, along with limestone and iron ores. The latter type of coke is largely used as a fuel for cement kilns.
The Indiana Harbor facility has been held up as a prototype for the FDS facility because of similarities between design and size. The Indiana Harbor facility produces 1.35 million tons of coke a year, while the proposed output of the FDS facility is 1.44 millions tons of coke a year.
Ms. Brown said her tour of the Indiana Harbor facility convinced her more than ever that U.S. Coking Group should proceed with its proposed FDS Coke Plant for Oregon.
She vowed to hold U.S. Coking accountable if it violated its permit. "I plan on being at their doorstep if they release any emissions that harm people," she said.
Oregon Council President Mike Sheehy's post-tour remarks were supportive but more tempered. "As far as a coke facility goes, I was reasonably satisfied [Indiana Harbor] was a clean process," he said.
The Indiana Harbor facility employs 120 people, 30 fewer than the 150 jobs U.S. Coking Group has promised for Oregon. About 100 of the Indiana Harbor positions are union jobs that pay an average hourly rate of $16, plus benefits and production incentives, Mr. Bradley said.
Despite its environmental challenges, the Indiana Harbor coke plant is viewed as a good corporate neighbor by the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. "Those people get jobs and earn dollars and spend them in the community and create the demand for other products," Joe Kosina, chamber president, said.
Indiana Harbor is Ispat Inland Steel Co.'s coke supplier. While the two are separate businesses, they are generally viewed by the community as one. The FDS Coke Plant would be along Lake Erie, north of Millard Avenue between Duck and Otter creeks. Potential clients for its coke have not been revealed. Based on normal prevailing winds, FDS Coke emissions would likely go predominantly over western Lake Erie - the shallowest and most ecologically vunerable part of the Great Lakes - and east over populated areas such as Oregon and the village of Harbor View.
The facility's draft permit would have allowed the FDS plant to discharge up to 680 pounds of mercury a year. The final permit, issued Monday, lowered the threshold by 95 percent, to 36 pounds a year.
U.S. Coking Group has declined comment on whether it will proceed.
Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones has said the mercury ceiling for the FDS facility was set at a conservative level "because we are concerned about the impact on Lake Erie and on children."
No mercury threshold was established, however, in the permit the Ohio EPA issued last year for Sun Coke to build its proposed southern Ohio plant. That's because there are no such federal EPA requirements on facilities that are expected to discharge less than a ton of mercury a year - a policy so lax that critics say it is a joke.
Mr. Sagady, of Sagady and Associates Inc., said he believes the Ohio EPA was boxed into a no-win situation and set the mercury threshold artificially low to save face for its rapid approval of the permit. That leaves the door open for U.S. Coking Group to seek an increase after its FDS Coke Plant is built, he said.
"They imposed additional requirements on mercury, but I don't see how [U.S. Coking] is ever going to meet it with their current technology," he said. "We're concerned this is disingenuous permitting."
Similar accusations have been leveled against the Indiana Harbor facility, which came back to regulators for an increase in sulfur dioxide emissions after the plant opened. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain.
Mr. Bradley acknowledged that many of the 10 outstanding U.S. EPA violations stem largely from the belief that the facility's preconstruction estimate of sulfur dioxide was underestimated. One issue is whether Sun Coke should have been entitled to build the Indiana Harbor facility based on a trade-off of air pollution emission credits it received from closed portions of the nearby steel plant.
The U.S. EPA now contends Indiana regulators erred by not subjecting the coke plant to a more elaborate review process. The federal agency said the coke plant should have been treated as a new source of emissions, not a modification of the air permit for the steel mill complex.
Ohio EPA spokesman Dina Pierce said agency officials did extensive research before settling on the 36-pound mercury limit for the FDS Coke Plant. She conceded that it would be possible for U.S. Coking Group to follow Indiana Harbor's lead and obtain an increase for a pollutant category, such as mercury, after the FDS plant is built.
"We're very confident that limit is achievable," she said.
The FDS Coke Plant's permit would allow the Toledo-area facility to discharge more than 7 million pounds of pollutants a year, including 2.1 million pounds of both sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxide. Mr. Sampias said he worked for years at a steel mill that had older-generation coke ovens on site. "I believe this [Indiana Harbor] coke plant operates better than a conventional coke plant," he said. "After working the bugs out, the technology will prove itself."
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.