An unanswered question looms over Erie Coke’s repeated, years-long clashes with environmental regulators: What has been the effect of the plant’s repeated failure to abide by laws meant to protect the public?
In the current fight to retain its Title V operating permit, the second such contest in nine years, Erie Coke officials said the company’s analysis — conducted by a hired expert with data supplied by the company — shows a negligible risk of cancer posed by plant emissions.
Perhaps that finding will be borne out. We hope so. But the public should not be asked to rely on it, given the potential stakes and the company’s history of chronic violations and related credibility deficit.
That is why we welcome news that the inquiry into the possible health effects of Erie Coke pollution has begun.
As reporter Madeleine O’Neill detailed, a judge is weighing whether to allow Erie Coke to remain in operation while it appeals the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s July 1 decision not to renew its operating permit because of repeat violations.
In the meantime, DEP said it plans for the first time to conduct large-scale testing of the air quality outside the plant at the foot of East Avenue and evaluate any possible health risks. It will also conduct groundwater and soil sampling on Erie Coke’s property in the near future.
DEP Northwest Regional Office Director James Miller said DEP plans to address any ongoing environmental concerns generated by the plant as the court proceedings continue. Given that leaks occurred as recently as June 13, that vigilance is imperative. Credit is also owed to a community stakeholder group that, concerned about benzene emissions flagged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pressed for the research a year ago.
Attempts to force Erie Coke to comply with environmental laws have followed a familiar pattern for more than a decade — escalating enforcement resolved by fines and settlements known as consent decrees and then a renewal of pollution.
The public also has a right to know what the evidence detailed in regulators’ complaints or displayed in courtroom proceedings — acrid, dark smoke straying from coke ovens, toxic wastewater spills and black particulate matter that wafts from the plant and settles on the water, lawns, homes and more — means for public health.
As the work proceeds, transparency — about the methods, scope and findings of the research — is paramount.
We have said given the company’s woeful track record, strictest scrutiny must be applied by the courts in deciding the fate of its operating permit. Equal attention must be paid to the results of this testing. If the analysis raises new questions or concerns, resolve them by whatever means necessary.