Jillian Engel

Middletown Coke Company, SunCoke Inc.’s potential $340 million coke making and heat recovery plant, received the OK from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin construction Nov. 25.

However, since Ohio EPA granted Middletown Coke its final air permit allowing installation of the plant, many Middletown and Monroe residents continue to oppose the construction of the coke plant.

Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heather Lauer said during public commentary sessions over the summer, after the draft air permit was issued, many citizens raised questions regarding the legitimacy of leftover air pollution credits.

“About five years ago, AK Steel had a facility known as the Center Plant and they closed that down in 2003,” Lauer said. “(AK Steel) essentially said to Ohio EPA the facility is permitted and they have (a number of) credits to emit pollutants into the air.”

Ohio EPA responded to AK Steel by allowing them to keep the air pollution permits. However, emission credits from shutdown sources are only good for five years, according to Lauer.

The Center Plant site is the same location SunCoke plans to construct Middletown Coke Company, 7014 Hamilton-Middletown Road.

“Ultimately for the final air permit, this (SunCoke) facility is using those (remaining) air pollution credits,” Lauer said. “Ohio EPA believes that between the time that the Center Plant closed and SunCoke got us their permits, we are in the five-year window … we issued the permit because we believe it’s a valid permit.”

But Middletown and Monroe citizens argue that the five-year netting has elapsed and SunCoke cannot use those permits to build its plant.

Lisa Frye, of Middletown, is president of SunCoke Watch Inc, a nonprofit group she formed with fellow Monroe and Middletown citizens in an effort to oppose the coke plant.

“You’ve got entities (contending the permit) like the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Sienna Club, the National Park Reserve,” Frye said. “We’ve had several consultants and environmental attorneys that, interestingly enough, none of them collaborated but they all came to the end result of questioning the netting.”

Frye said she speculates the five-year opening for air pollutant emissions is so crucial to the construction of the project because the pollution standards SunCoke’s Middletown plant will have to meet will be more strict otherwise.

“The reason they (SunCoke) want the netting is because they can get away with polluting illegally,” Frye said.

Although Ohio EPA already issued the final permit, they requested for the U.S. EPA to help interpret when the five-year window actually started, Lauer said.

The possible dates the five-year period began are June 2003 when the plant stopped operations, Dec. 2003 when AK Steel notified Ohio EPA or in 2004 when the plant was demolished, said Brad Miller, permits and enforcements sections supervisor for the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services.

According to a Nov. 25 Ohio EPA news release announcing SunCoke was granted the final air permit, Ohio EPA “recommended and requested that Middletown Coke Company not begin actual construction until the issue is resolved.”

According to Lauer, on Dec. 4, the Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC) sent Ohio EPA a copy of an appeal to the permit filed by a Middletown resident.

Miller said he expects more appeals to be sent to ERAC because of the copious concerns over the construction of the plant, but it may be a year or two before the appeals are heard by ERAC.

In the meantime, because the final permit was issued, SunCoke has the credentials to begin construction, although Ohio EPA is still waiting for U.S. EPA’s response, Lauer said.

“If the company decided to build, they do have their permit. They can build now,” Lauer said. “It would be at their own risk, but they could build.”