Sam Kay

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) has notified SunCoke Energy, owned by Sunoco, that it can proceed with the construction of a processing plant at the AK Steel facility in Middletown.

The plant, a 100-oven facility, will process coke-an essential raw material in the making of steel.

As preliminary construction begins on the 157 acres of farmland just south of AK Steel’s main facility, the site choice, zoning and permit are under scrutiny from local residents and groups.

The site is adjacent to Amanda Elementary School and Garden Manor Extended Care Center, and railway lines and coal piles for the facility could be located within meters of residential property lines in Monroe.

Christopher Walker, an attorney hired by the city of Monroe, filed a Clean Air Act Lawsuit in U.S. District court on behalf of the city Wednesday.

OEPA initially issued an air permit Nov. 25 for SunCoke, which was needed before construction could begin. SunCoke was then advised not to begin construction before the project could be reviewed by the federal EPA.

Then-Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Robert Meyers of the federal EPA concluded the review process Jan. 16 with a 119-word e-mail, stating the EPA “has concluded its review and has no further comments on this matter.”

However both Walker and Lisa Frye, president of SunCoke Watch Inc., said the federal review was politically tainted.

Meyers signed off on the review, Frye said, at 4:38 p.m. on his last day of work.

“No one can tell me that an e-mail sent out at 4:38 p.m. on Meyer’s last day was any form of legal interpretation,” Frye said. “It was purely political.”

Walker said the SunCoke permit was hastily pushed through the EPA review process, a move he said was intended to avoid pollution requirements.

“The Bush administration made a last-minute deal with AK Steel and SunCoke that allows them to doge air pollution control requirements,” Walker said.

The controversy, OEPA spokeswoman Heidi Greismer said, stems around the application of “netting” rules in the permit process. Greismer said the greater Cincinnati area does not meet federal air quality standards and is classified as a “non-attainment” area. This means area companies must trade emission credits or use their own store if they want to build a new source of pollutants, such as a coke plant.

Ohio netting rules stipulate that for emission credits from a de-activated facility to be used by its former owner, the company must begin construction on any new facility within five years of closing the old facility.

SunCoke is attempting to purchase emission credits formally owned by AK Steel, which are now nearing the five-year deadline, Greismer said.

According to Mike Hopkins, an assistant chief of the Ohio EPA’s air permits division, the rules are unclear about exactly which dates should be used in determining the five-year time period.

“The rule isn’t very clear and a logical person could interpret it in multiple ways,” Hopkins said.

According to Hopkins, the OEPA used June 1, 2003 as the date for the beginning of the five-year window, and June 1, 2008 as the date for the permit application for SunCoke to begin construction.

The debate over the coke plant pits economic and environmental concerns against each other.

Middletown Planning Director Marty Kohler insists the coke plant is vital to the continuation of steel-making operations in Middletown and to the economic health of the city.

“The current coke battery is reaching the end of it’s lifespan,” Kohler said, “The new facility will ensure that the operation of the blast furnace will continue, because you have to have coke to make raw steel.”

According to Kohler, 500 construction workers will be needed to complete the plant that will employ approximately 75 people when operational. The $340 million facility will also provide hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in property taxes to the Middletown schools, including Amanda Elementary School.

Because of its close proximity to the AK Steel facility, Amanda is already ranked in the 1st percentile of schools with the worst air by a USA Today study based on EPA statistics. AK Steel Vice President Alan McCoy said the coke plant will utilize state of the art technology to reduce emissions and convert waste heat into electricity, enough to provide for 25 percent of AK Steel’s needs.

Despite the emissions capturing technology, Hopkins said the net result of using the credits from the deactivated sinter plant and operating the coke plant will only serve to be a minor increase in emissions.

Hopkins said the toxic material from the plant would pose a health risk only in much greater concentrations.

“The plant met all applicable air pollution rules and regulations … there will not be any adverse health effects associated with the facility,” Hopkins said.

Frye believes the location of the site next to a school, nursing home and residences is too dangerous.

“If you were to ask me to find the most absurd place to put a 100-oven coke facility, I’d say AK Steel already has,” Frye said.

According to McCoy, there is no economical way for the coke facility to be located anywhere else. The coke plant is being constructed on undeveloped farmland in part because SunCoke did not want to take on liability associated with a 2006 court order involving other land on AK Steel property.

Ohio Senior Assistant Attorney General Tom Behlen said the land was declared to be in violation of various federal environmental acts in 2001. The 2006 agreement calling for site cleanup partially resolved the case, but Behlen said “a final remedy has not yet been found for the site.”

McCoy acknowledged SunCoke’s reluctance to build on the land.

“It was their judgment that it presented a risk that they were unwilling to accept,” McCoy said.

As a result, the plant is being constructed on previously clean, undeveloped farmland, but Frye said it is not the right place to build the facility.

“What I say is this: I don’t care if it’s the last place on earth, it’s the wrong place,” Frye said.