DEP cites Monessen coke plant 6 times |
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This file photo shows the ArcelorMittal Coke plant in Monessen starting up operations, April 11, 2014, after sitting dormant for nearly five years. According to the DEP, the plant has been cited multiple times since.

The ArcelorMittal coke plant in Monessen has been cited six times for illegal emissions since reopening in April, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The majority of violations by the 345 Donner Ave. plant involved “fugitive emissions” – gases released from pressurized equipment that can cause pollution and potential health hazards, DEP spokesman John Poister said.

The DEP has been monitoring the plant using a mobile analytical unit and “grab samples” from devices hanging from nearby trees, Poister said.

Plant manager Paul Champagne was sent written notices of violation for visible fugitive emissions on May 23, Aug. 8, and Oct. 28, the DEP said.

A letter dated July 22 alleged the plant did not prevent fugitive dust – dust suspended in air – from a coal stock pile from being spread by truck traffic. The DEP said the company did not “have a water truck or other preventative measure on site” to deal with the dust.

A Nov. 7 letter to Champagne accused the plant of failing to contain emissions from a coal yard from which emissions and dust leached into the Monongahela River.

That letter also said the plant illegally emitted air contaminants from a baghouse – an air pollution control device – and from operational areas and roadways throughout the plant.

“Being a startup operation, you expect some glitches, but what we’re seeing goes beyond a glitch,” Poister said.

“The initial results we got were they did have some problems, but the condition of their permit was they had six months to get within compliance after the start up.

“What we’re seeing now is different. We’re seeing some heavy smoke and some (air particles) that are going into the community.”

However, the DEP has no plans to levy fines or take other actions against the plant, Poister said. He added the department has been in contact with Champagne to arrange a meeting.

“The first goal is always to fix the problem,” Poister said. “These are serious, serious violations. Our first step is to sit down and see if we can set up a plan to fix these problems.

“After we see whether the problem is fixed, it may involve a civil penalty.”

In an email, ArcelorMittal spokeswoman Mary Beth Holdford said the company received two notices of violations “alleging air permit deviations” at the plant.

“ArcelorMittal takes our environmental performance seriously,” Holdford wrote. “We are working closely with facility management and regulatory agencies to investigate the allegations and have already addressed one of the concerns and, if necessary, we will implement additional corrective actions designed to prevent future occurrences.”

Responding to a request for more specific answers, Holdford said Thursday night she could not provide additional details.

“We know that being a trusted and responsible user of our natural resources is the price of admission in today’s metals and mining business,” Holdford said. “And we are committed to achieving full compliance with all environmental permits.”

ArcelorMittal purchased the 1940s-era plant in 2008 from Koppers Holdings Inc. It obtained an air quality permit from the DEP last year that increased allowable emissions of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds from the coke oven batteries.

The plant processes coal into coke, a key ingredient in steelmaking.

ArcelorMittal – the world’s largest steelmaker – spent approximately $50 million to upgrade the plant. The company also had to obtain various environmental permits.

The DEP said that before the plant began operating in early April, the agency gathered background air samples to provide a baseline for future readings.

The DEP said readings taken April 28 and May 1 – weeks after the plant reopened – showed visible air contaminants that surpassed permitted limits.

Poister said the department has received a number of complaints about odor and smoke. The department could not follow up on numerous anonymous messages, he said.

Poister encouraged residents in Monessen and the surrounding area to call the department’s complaint line at 412-442-4184 to report concerns about smoke or odors.

“We need to know where they are, what they’re seeing and when they see it,” Poister said.

Numerous residents have contacted The Valley Independent about fumes from the plant, but only one responded to an interview request.

Viktoryia Maroz, a five-year Donora resident, said she cannot open her windows on even mild days because of what she describes as “a nasty rotten egg smell.”

Maroz brought her concerns to Monessen City Council on Wednesday, claiming the Liberty-Clairton area sees the nation’s highest cancer risk.

Maroz said that area, which includes a coke plant, registered a cancer rate of 289 cases per million over a 70-year lifetime, when the national average is around 50.

“With the reopening of the plant in Monessen, the quality of air has been declining to the point where it becomes unbearable to be in your own home,” Maroz told council.

“You don’t need to be a DEP agent to know that something is not right.”

Maroz implored council to look into measuring coke plant emissions, which drew the ire of Mayor Lou Mavrakis.

Mavrakis countered that the plant has “dramatically” cleaned up emissions and that it was council’s intention to increase city revenue by ensuring the coke plant remains operational.

“I for one had 19 years in the coke plant where you couldn’t see from here to where you’re standing … and I’m still here,” Mavrakis said. “You have 160 to 180 high-paying jobs there.

“The reason we have the blight in this city is because the steel mills closed down. Do you know you had 12,000 employees at the steel plant in Donora?”

Mavrakis said he is not interested in chasing jobs from the Mon Valley.

“But Mayor, there are ways we can control the pollution and keep the jobs,” Councilwoman Lucille D’Alfonso said. “And I think she’s asking that we look into that a little further.”

City solicitor Gary Matta told Maroz council cannot address plant activities as long as the company is working under DEP requirements. He said Maroz’s concerns could be better handled by the agency.

In the meantime, Poister vowed the DEP will remain vigilant.

“Coke oven batteries are dirty by their very nature. The process is dirty. But there are health concerns any time you have these kinds of emissions and that’s the reason we have these regulations,” he said.

“I’m sure the folks in Monessen appreciate that the coke plant is up and running, but they don’t have to put up with the smoke and the odors.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 724-684-2635.

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