Judge to decide on Erie Coke’s future

Testimony before Environmental Hearing Board judge focused on why DEP denied the plant’s operating permit.

The fate of Erie Coke Corp. now rests with a judge on the state Environmental Hearing Board.

Erie Coke and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday wrapped up a marathon six-day hearing that will determine, at least temporarily, whether the coke plant at the foot of East Avenue can continue operating.

A decision will not come for several weeks. Erie Coke and the DEP have until Aug. 7 to submit briefs summarizing their positions.

Environmental Hearing Board Judge Steven C. Beckman will rule after the briefs are submitted.

Beckman is weighing Erie Coke’s request to temporarily set aside the DEP’s July 1 denial of the company’s Title V operating permit and allow the plant to continue running during a pending appeal over the denial.

Erie Coke has argued that any shutdown would permanently destroy the plant’s batteries of coke ovens, which are maintained at 2,000 degrees. The plant produces coke, a derivative of coal used in several industries.

The DEP on Thursday presented continued testimony from Air Quality Manager Eric Gustafson, the DEP official who decided not to renew Erie Coke’s operating permit. He offered a blunt explanation for the decision during his testimony.

Gustafson said he felt he had “an obligation” to deny the operating permit because “there was no end in sight” to environmental violations at the plant.

“I really never thought we were going to get there,” Gustafson said of bringing the plant into compliance. An inspection at the plant in May showed conditions that were unacceptable, he said.

He cited “the deplorable condition of the (emission) capture system, with obvious rust holes and lack of maintenance,” among other issues, including poor record-keeping.

“It just showed a total lack of understanding of the permit and their rules and responsibilities to comply,” Gustafson said.

Under questioning by DEP lawyer Carl Ballard, Gustafson said that DEP officials began communicating with Erie Coke about growing environmental concerns as early as November 2017, after the department began to notice an increasing number of violations at the plant.

Erie Coke blamed many of those issues on maintenance flaws and problems with training for new employees, Gustafson said. But the issues were not addressed by November, when the DEP informed Erie Coke it would be placed on the department’s air compliance docket if it did not come into compliance, he said.

Erie Coke has continued to point to training issues as a key cause of the ongoing environmental violations at the 137-employee plant.

Erie Coke CEO Paul Saffrin testified on July 11 that “human error and high turnover” were largely responsible for the violations.

Gustafson said that response from Erie Coke, as well as a detailed compliance plan the company submitted in April, did not offer a thorough enough explanation of what was causing continuing violations of the state’s limits on the opacity of emissions from the plant.

Continue reading on GoErie.com

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