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Public hearing on Indiana Coke Company air pollution takes place Wednesday

The ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor complex in East Chicago is shown from the air in October, 2016. 

EAST CHICAGO — Cokeenergy, Sun Coke Energy and its subsidiary Indiana Harbor Coke Co. have reached a court settlement with the state and federal governments to curtail rampant air pollution, pay a $5 million fine and clean up lead contamination in the city.

The company, considered one of the area’s top polluters, supplies coke for the blast furnaces at the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill in East Chicago.

Under the agreement, the company could be forced to shut down the worst performing coke battery to address oven leaks to significantly reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

The Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago has threatened to sue the EPA over its handling of the permit renewal process, citing numerous violations during the past decade.

The EPA has found several violations since the last air permit was issued to Indiana Coke Co. in 2010, including that the facility released 160 excess tons of sulfur dioxide and 15.9 excess tons of particulate matter beyond what was permitted from its bypass stacks between 2005 and 2008.

Many of the 2016 violations were because coke ovens weren't sealed properly to keep toxic gases from being released into the air, according to EPA documents.

The Department of Justice, the EPA, the Office of the Indiana Attorney General and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management announced the proposed settlement agreement in a news release Thursday, saying it would result "in significant reductions in harmful air pollution and is welcome news for East Chicago."

The city continues to struggle with high rates of asthma, cancer and infant mortality, and still is reeling from fallout over the environmental cleanup at the USS Lead Superfund site. 

The City Council adopted a resolution last month opposing the air permit application without an aggressive compliance schedule.

To settle the DOJ lawsuit filed on behalf of the EPA, the coke plant agreed to pay a $5 million fine, split between the state and federal governments.

The companies must also spend $250,000 to abate lead hazards in East Chicago, including the reduction of lead hazards in schools, day care centers and other buildings "with priority given to young children and pregnant women."

“Today’s settlement is one example of how EPA is committed to reducing exposure to lead and other contaminants in communities across the country,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in the release. “Lead exposure is a serious problem and reducing it is a priority for EPA.”

The consent decree will require increased monitoring and air quality, preventative maintenance to cut down on excess emissions, and comprehensive coke over rebuilds to put a stop to the leaks, which environmental activists said had been ongoing for years.

Thomas Frank, a board member for the Southeast Environmental Task Force, and member of the Community Strategy Group, said he is encouraged the government is taking action against Indiana Harbor Coke Co. Frank said he hasn't had a chance to fully evaluate the agreement yet. 

He said the community groups that had been pushing for an aggressive compliance schedule were caught off guard by Thursday's announced settlement. 

"It looks like this includes an aggressive compliance schedule, which we have been fighting for," Frank said. "But it's hard for me to judge (the consent decree) properly without taking a closer look at it." 

The proposed agreement is subject to a 30-day federal comment period.

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

Public safety reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.