Some of the wildflowers in the overgrown field reach Mike Campbell’s head.
He walked through them one recent day, pointing out where to watch for railroad tracks, as he got closer to Erie Coke.
It’s an industrial plant on the shore of one of the Great Lakes where workers turn coal into a key ingredient for steel manufacturing. The operation has a long history of environmental violations, and it survived a shut-down attempt by state regulators almost a decade ago.
It’s now being targeted again — in part thanks to Campbell and a group he helped start.
When Campbell reached the fence line for the Erie Coke plant, the 64-year-old college biology professor and part-time activist saw a red smokestack and an area where workers bring coal.
He picked up a smell.
“We’re getting a whiff of air pollution right now that I’ll probably end up sending in a complaint,” Campbell told a reporter. “….It smells like a mix of rotten eggs and fresh tar.”
More than a year ago, Campbell and other members of a group called Hold Erie Coke Accountable launched a public campaign to put increased pressure on the plant — and state regulators.
In July, the state Department of Environmental Protection denied the company’s application to renew an operating permit and filed a complaint in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas to shut it down. DEP said the plant was unable or unwilling to comply with state and federal law.
That got the attention of environmental activists in other areas of the state.
“I was a little surprised to see such aggressive action,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, based outside Pittsburgh. “But I was pleased to see that state regulators are taking this issue seriously.”
Erie Coke appealed DEP’s decision, and a judge recently ruled that it can remain open if it meets certain conditions.
So the fight isn’t over.
At Erie Coke, shipments of coal are blended together and put in ovens.
“Coke ovens are really a tenuous kind of monster,” said Ed Nesselbeck, environmental director for the plant. “It’s huge. It’s hot.”
Inside the plant, workers heat coal at extreme temperatures — about 2,000 degrees — to burn off impurities. Then they quench the product in water to cool it down, size it for different customer needs, and ship it out.
That process makes coke “the perfect solid fuel,” Nesselbeck said.
But that process also creates emissions, including benzene, a chemical that increases the risk of developing leukemia and other blood cell cancers.
And state regulators with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection say the plant has allowed too many pollutants to enter the air.
The plant was nearly shut down in 2010 for what a state regulator called a “pattern of defiant behavior and complete disregard for the health of our citizens and the quality of our natural resources.”
A judge allowed the plant to remain open. DEP says a court-ordered settlement required the plant to pay a $4 million fine and make upgrades to address pollution.
But problems at the plant have continued.
In May, the department put increased pressure on the plant, saying it had nearly 80 unresolved air violations over two years. That includes what the DEP calls visible emissions — the smoke was too thick.