Public Concern Grows as Plans Emerge for New Neville Island Coke Production

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Hotline, Spring 1999

The plans of Antaeus Energy, which wants to manufacture coke on the Neville Island site long used for that purpose by Shenango, Inc., appear to be progressing. Iris Songer, Antaeus’s director of public affairs, said recently that the two companies would soon be merging. This step would give Antaeus, the larger firm, effective control of Shenango. While Shenango has not yet asked the Allegheny County Health Department to transfer to the merged company its permit to make coke at the site, Sandra Etzel, Chief Engineer of the Health Department’s Air Quality Program, said that she expected it to approve that transfer.

One complication in this transition is that the Health Department has ruled that Shenango, which has long violated air pollution rules flagrantly, is formally out of compliance with those regulations. However, since the Fall of 1998, the company has been making strong efforts to improve its performance. Shenango, which uses one conventional coke battery, is installing updated equipment, modifying processes, and retraining employees. These changes, according to Songer, will continue after the merger, through 1999. But Antaeus would need to improve the performance of the coke battery substantially before the county could classify that process back in compliance, said Etzel.

These developments have opened new concerns to local environmental groups and interested citizens.

First, through a recently developed process, Antaeus intends to us e coal wastes to make coke briquettes, installing new equipment on Neville Island for that purpose. The company would dredge coal residues from waste ponds near mines. It would dry these residues and give them initial heat treatment on site, then ship them in pellet form to Neville Island to be heated at higher temperatures, cleaned, and formed into coke briquettes for industrial uses. Antaeus asserts that it intends to meet current air quality standards in Pittsburgh. But its success remains to be seen, for the company intends to produce an increasing amount of coke with a process yet to be tested on a commercial scale.

Second, Antaeus also intends to keep Shenango’s coke battery operating at its current level of production of about half a million tons annually. Even if the battery’s long-standing pollution problems, which have included excess emissions of both SO2 and particulate matter, are remedied, the total tonnage of coke manufactured on Neville Island would far exceed the amount now produced. Reaching that level of production would raise new questions about its environmental effects.

Third, Antaeus’s promise to meet current air quality standards includes limiting its output of particulate matter 10 microns or larger in size, a standard specified for many years by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the EPA has now begun to introduce new legal requirements for controlling particles at the 2.5 micron size. It remains to be seen whether Antaeus can, or will, meet that new standard as its enforcement comes into play.

Antaeus has explained its plans for the Neville Island site through the press and at public meetings, and by submitting plans for its new process to the Health Department. At the same time, open concern by citizens and environmental groups about problems of compliance with pollution regulations has been rising. Protests at recent public meetings by those affected by Shenango’s past violations have been vociferous. Both Clean Water Action of Pennsylvania and GASP have been active in following development of the Antaeus proposal. On February 8, 1999 they held discussions with Songer, Antaeus’s Director of Public Affairs about expectations for compliance with the proposed pollution controls and exchange of information through periodic public meetings.

Aside from the expected transfer of Shenango’s coke-making permit to the merged entity, Etzel said that the next step in the Health Department’s handling of the Antaeus application is the preparation of a draft permit for use of the new process, for installation of needed equipment, and for its temporary operation. At that point the department would place advertisements in the press calling for public comment. The period allowed for public response is thirty days.

Antaeus Energy, which originated in Australia, has been attempting to develop sites in several countries where its new process for making coke from coal wastes can be used. Among the advantages of these efforts, the company asserts, would be conversion of large ponds n ow filled with mine wastes into usable water or land. The coke-making process to be used at Neville Island has so far been put into use only at a pilot plant built by Antaeus at Bristol, Virginia. No independent evaluations of the process in operation have yet been reported.

by David Fowler, GASP Board Member