Environmental organizations throughout the Lake Erie basin joined forces to oppose the permitting of U.S. Coking Group LLC’s, FDS Coke Plant (FDS) in Oregon, Ohio (Lucas County) in the western Lake Erie basin. Coke plants transform coal into coke, which is used by the steel industry. Turning coal into coke is typically a high emissions process, which raised concerns with environmental organizations as well as other Lake Erie basin jurisdictions. In fact, environmental concerns with coke plant pollutants are a reason many of these plants have gone overseas to China where labor is cheaper and environmental standards are weaker. The FDS plant, if it is built, will provide 150 long-term jobs to the Toledo area.
Fifteen environmental organizations from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario signed onto comments urging the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) to deny U.S. Coking Group LLC its permit to construct the facility. The organizations were concerned about the potential output of more than 8 million pounds of pollutants each year from the FDS Coke plant. The FDS facility would be a major new source of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, particle pollution, and hazardous air pollutants including benzene, cadmium, lead and mercury to Lucas County, Ohio, Southeast Michigan, Maumee Bay, and the Lake Erie ecosystem. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that is responsible for most of the Great Lakes fish consumption advisories due to its toxicity and neurological effect on children.
Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and Environment Canada also voiced concerns over the permitting process and the amount of toxic pollutants expected to enter the environment from the plant and the effects this pollution might have on citizens of their jurisdiction.
While the OEPA did not deny U.S. Coking Group’s permit, the FDS permit has one of the strictest mercury emission limits in the nation for this type of facility.According to the preliminary permit application, the FDS facility would have discharged up to 680 pounds of mercury into the air annually, making it one of the largest sources of mercury in the Great Lakes Basin and the fifth largest in the state of Ohio. The draft permit had no monitoring provisions for mercury and included no limits for mercury or other hazardous air pollutants.
The FDS Coke Plant’s final permit-to-install set limits on the type and quantities of materials that may be discharged to the air. The facility will be required to use the best available technology to control air pollution.The plant will be restricted to 36 pounds of mercury emissions per year. That is a 95% reduction from the preliminary permit application. A computerized stack monitor will be installed to measure mercury emissions from the facility 24 hours a day. To put this in prospective – there are only two non-recovery coke plants in the U.S. One is in Indiana Harbor, Indiana and the other in Vanasant,Virginia.The one in Indiana reports estimated annual emissions of 719 pounds per year, and the one in Virginia reports 331 pounds per year.
From the standpoint of protecting public health, the OEPA has issued a permitting decision that adopts comparatively strict mercury emissions restrictions for the FDS Coke Plant. OEPA Director Chris Jones stated, “This is the most restrictive permit we’ve ever issued for this kind of facility. We are doing it because we are concerned about the impact of mercury on Lake Erie and on children. As far as we know, this is the first coke plant permit in the nation to contain a specific limit on mercury emissions.”
By limiting the level of mercury emissions to 36 pounds per year, the OEPA has made the FDS coke plant mercury standards a benchmark for how economic development can go hand-in-hand with protection of the health of people and wildlife. Unfortunately, limits placed on other pollutants in the final permit are not as restrictive as those set for mercury emissions.
Concerns about the plant remain. Coke production is a dirty process, and the plant will still emit large quantities of smog-related ozone and other pollutants. The Toledo area is designated as a non-attainment area for ground-level ozone. Environmental organizations point out that the permit was rushed through to avoid tougher standards on smog-producing ground level ozone. These standards went into effect on June 15, only one day after the FDS Coke Plant received their permit.