The Proposed Non-Recovery Coke Plant in Hazelwood

by Walter Goldburg, GASP Board Member

Perhaps you have noticed we Pittsburghers have been enjoying the sweetest smelling spring and the clearest air in many a decade.  This we owe to the fact that the old LTV plant at Hazelwood finally shut down in February.  What you may not know is that LTV and the Sun Coal Company have gone to the City and County and told them they are seriously considering the construction of a new and possibly much larger coke plant at the same site.

If events continue to move at the present pace, we may have such a plant before there is any public discussion about the wisdom of the idea.  The Company has said they want to know what the important provisions would be of an air quality Installation Permit for the plant by September 1.  As a condition for putting the new plant here, the Sun Co. requires that our air pollution standards be relaxed so they can operate within the law.  The concessions they seek pertain to emissions from charging.  It is GASP’s opinion that no new plant should be built in Hazelwood without broad public discussion of possible alternative uses of the site.  We are far from convinced that such a heavily polluting source as a coke works should be built in this or any other heavily populated area.

Here is a summary of the facts we have accumulated about the proposed plant.

The new coke works will be an enlarged copy of one built by the Sun Co. in East Chicago, Indiana.  The Indiana plant, which has been operating for only a couple of months, produces coke by a new method that generates much less stench than the old LTV coke works.  The trick here is that the organic vapors that come from burning coal into coke are incinerated at a high temperature right inside the oven.  In a standard byproduct coke plant, like the ones at Clairton and on Neville Island, the fumes are collected and sold to make plastics and other materials.

In the new plant, which will actually be owned by Sun, these chemicals are burned to produce coke, and the excess will be used to generate electricity, so they have no chance to escape into the air.  The building of a coke plant here would not be economically sensible if this electricity could not be sold into the power grid.

So much for the good news about the new Sun plant.  Now the down side.

  • The proposed plant will generate approximately 50% more coke in tons/year.
  • Those who have visited the Indiana plant have commented on the fact that it is very noisy. Even if the plant generated no air pollution, it may not be pleasant living in Hazelwood if this plant is built.  The noise extends for several blocks, say the County officials.  In addition there may be times when the steam generators must be vented to the atmosphere, producing a painfully loud noise.
  • Though the chemical smells from this plant will allegedly be absent, because its emissions are incinerated at very high temperature, if all goes as planned, the dirt and dust will still be with us.  They are dealt with in the same way as a conventional coke plant.  It cannot meet our particulate visible emission standards for charging, which is why the Company requires that those standards be relaxed if the plant is to be built here.

It is worth noting that the County is presently in a moderate non-attainment status for the one hour ozone standard and could be bumped to serious non-attainment according to past exceedences.  NOx is a major contributor to ozone formation and this plant is a large emitter of NOx.  Will the Environmental Protection Agency allow relaxed standards for the new Sun Plant in Hazelwood?  No one knows, but we do know that the EPA has, in recent decisions, relaxed enforcement of the law if that is what the local residents really want.  This is where you, dear reader, enter the picture by letting the newspapers and our elected and appointed officials, city and county know how you feel about this issue Returning to allowable dust levels, we now know that even when the Nation’s air quality standards for fine particulates are being met, asthma attacks, hospital admissions, and death rates increase.  That is why the EPA recently tightened the fine particulate standard.  But the proposed plant cannot meet the emission standards now in place.  That’s the stuff that accumulates on our window sills, our cars, and our outdoor furniture.

There are only two coke plants of the Sun type operating in the US, and neither of them is located in a heavily populated area.  A failure of pollution control equipment at the Pittsburgh plant could therefore have a much more serious health impact than would such a failure at the Indiana plant, which is located far from where people live.  Whereas the work force of the recently closed LTV plant numbered in the thousands, the new Hazelwood plant would employ only 200 or so steel workers.  Because of its very limited job-creating potential, there may be wiser uses of the LTV property for generating new, high-paying jobs in the City.

No elected city or county official has spoken out for or against the building of this plant, nor have they answered GASP’s letters on this issue.  On the other hand, plant owners Sun and LTV officials have met with Commissioner Dunn and with Mayor Murphy.  Health Department officials have been sent to visit the Chicago plant, and most of the information reported here came from them.  It is worth noting that when the County air pollution experts visited the Sun plant in Indiana, their attempt to film it in operation was blocked.

Is the placing of a very large new coke plant within the city limits the wisest way to help assure the prosperity of our community?  Will such a use of the LTV site harmonize and support other planned development strategies for the East End of the city, such as the high tech laboratories operated by CMU and Pitt just west of the LTV site, the residential development of the opposite bank of the Monongahela River on Carson Street, and the development of the property near Nine Mile Run?  If we don’t yet know the answer to these questions, maybe we should not be rushing headlong into the issuing of an air quality Installation Permit for a new coke plant on the LTV site, as LTV and Sun are pressuring our elected our officials to do.

Tell your elected officials, Commissioners Cranmer, Dawida, and Dunn, and especially Mayor Murphy and City Council members, how you feel about the building of a new coke plant at the Hazelwood LTV site.  Let them know also if you have been enjoying the sweet fragrance of Spring this year.  Will they silently determine if the clean air we have enjoyed this spring, is but a brief interlude before the haze returns?  Or will they open this issue for full public discussion?