City to Erie Coke: Fix wastewater violations by December

A new cease-and-desist order follows two civil penalties levied against Erie Coke earlier this year.

The city of Erie has issued an ultimatum to Erie Coke Corp.: come into compliance with wastewater treatment rules or start shipping the coke plant’s wastewater elsewhere.

Erie Coke has until Dec. 15 to become compliant, according to a cease-and-desist order the city issued on Friday.

If the deadline isn’t met, Erie Coke will be forced to stop discharging wastewater from the plant, which sits at the foot of East Avenue, into the city’s sanitary system.

Erie Coke is dealing with this latest reprimand as it prepares for an upcoming legal fight to continue operating. State regulators moved to shutter the plant because of longstanding environmental concerns earlier this year.

The city’s move comes after Erie Coke twice agreed to pay penalties for mishandling wastewater. Both prior agreements, called consent orders, required the plant to become compliant with its permit limits for wastewater discharges.

That did not happen, according to the cease-and-desist order.

“The city is taking steps to ensure that Erie Coke is complying with the city’s pretreatment ordinance and is operating in accordance with our wastewater discharge permit,” Erie Mayor Joe Schember said. “The city is giving Erie Coke until Dec. 15, 2019, to become fully compliant.

“This action protects the city’s residents and visitors, protects the integrity of the city’s sewer system, and gives Erie Coke the opportunity to become fully compliant,” Schember said.

All of the orders deal with Erie Coke’s discharge of ammonia and naphthalene in excess of permit limits. The 137-employee plant produces coke, a derivative of coal used in several industries.

The latest order gives Erie Coke an additional month to come into compliance because the company recently received permission to use a wastewater treatment tank that is central to its improvement plan, according to the order.

That tank has been out of service since April, making it nearly impossible for the plant to be in compliance with wastewater limits, said Ed Nesselbeck, Erie Coke’s environmental director.

“We’re optimistic that we can be in compliance” with the tank back in service, Nesselbeck said. “That’s what we’re working hard on.”

If Erie Coke misses the Dec. 15 deadline, it “will not be permitted to put any industrial wastewater down the drain until it can establish that it has become compliant,” City Solicitor Ed Betza said in an email.

Erie Coke could lose its water service or have its connection to the sanitary system sealed if it fails to comply with the terms of the cease-and-desist order.

In that case, Erie Coke would have to truck its wastewater to another location, Nesselbeck said. The company is forming a plan in case that becomes necessary, he said.

Officials with Erie’s Bureau of Sewers have said that the violations in the consent orders did not present a health concern to the public. The city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant treats water from Erie Coke, which travels through the city’s sanitary system, before releasing the water into Lake Erie, the officials said.

In the two consent orders, Erie Coke agreed to pay a total of more than $300,000 in civil penalties for violations that occurred between December 2017 and June. Those penalties helped offset the cost to the city of treating wastewater from the coke plant, Betza said.

“The city can’t allow indefinite noncompliance,” Betza said. “The city is working with Erie Coke and is hopeful that they will be compliant. The city has to ensure progress and ultimately secure compliance.”

The wastewater troubles have overlapped with Erie Coke’s battle to stay open over the objections of state environmental regulators.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on July 1 announced it would not renew Erie Coke’s Title V operating permit. The company immediately appealed, triggering a legal fight before the state’s Environmental Hearing Board over whether the plant could remain open while the appeal was pending.

Environmental Hearing Board Judge Steven C. Beckman ruled in August that the plant could remain open, with certain conditions, until a larger hearing on the appeal in February.

The DEP’s complaints about Erie Coke’s environmental violations primarily relate to the potential for air pollution.

The city has focused on Erie Coke’s wastewater discharges.

“We certainly don’t want Erie Coke to have to shut down,” Schember said. “We don’t want to lose those jobs here in Erie. But we need them to become compliant. Hopefully they can get that together and have a plan in the next 30 days.”

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