Government moves to finalize settlement with coke suppliers for air pollution violations

The ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor complex in October 2016 in East Chicago.

EAST CHICAGO — The government this week filed a motion asking a federal judge to finalize a proposed consent decree for three companies that supply coke for the blast furnaces at ArcelorMittal's Indiana Harbor steel mill.

Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department and Indiana attorney general's office filed their motion after making two slight revisions to the proposed settlement, which would require Cokeenergy, SunCoke Energy and its subsidiary, Indiana Harbor Coke Co., to pay a $5 million civil penalty for Clean Air Act violations.

The companies have agreed to spend $250,000 on a lead abatement project in the East Chicago area to reduce lead hazards in schools, day care centers and other buildings used by high-priority populations such as children and pregnant women.

The government received 14 comments on the proposed consent decree, including seven from groups and seven from individuals, court records say.

The government and companies agreed to clarify that priority should be given to lead abatement work in buildings in East Chicago, the community closest to the facility.

The parties also agreed to revise language in the settlement to address an issue raised by the 2017 tax law.

The government announced the proposed consent decree following strong opposition from community groups regarding a permit renewal for the facility at 3210 Watling St. and a resolution approved by the East Chicago City Council. The groups demanded state and federal environmental regulations "fix it now or shut it down."

The Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago also had threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its handling of the permit renewal process. 

The alleged violations are linked to leaking coke ovens and excessive bypass venting of hot coking gases directly to the atmosphere, resulting in excess emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and lead.

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Sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain and respiratory illness, particularly in children and seniors. Exposure to particulate matter can cause respiratory disease. No level of lead exposure is safe for children. Coke oven emissions also are carcinogenic and can cause a range of ailments.

Step in 'positive direction'

Thomas Frank, an East Chicago resident and board member for the Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago, said he had not yet fully reviewed the revised consent decree but was disappointed only a couple of minor revisions were made.

"The people are never considered in these things," he said.

However, the proposed consent decree is a step in a "somewhat positive direction," Frank said.

The schedule for addressing noncompliance is more aggressive than the task force would have expected, he said.

The companies will be required to rebuild coke ovens and possibly shut down the worst performing battery to address oven leaks to significantly reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

The companies also must comply with enhanced monitoring and testing requirements, and implement preventative maintenance and operations plans to minimize excessive emissions.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management will expand its air monitoring on the Indiana Harbor peninsula and add a meteorological station. The department plans to increase sampling for lead to once every three days and include hourly monitoring for sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and benzene, court records say.

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