Demand For Steel Lights Fire Under New Plant Construction

Wed August 31, 2005 - Midwest Edition

CLEVELAND (AP) Demand from the steel industry has triggered interest in the construction of new coke plants across the Midwest and Appalachia.

The rush of activity reflects the changing economics of the global steel industry. It also highlights the latest coke-making technology, which is designed to reduce the risk of toxic air pollution, a problem that has dogged the industry for decades.

After the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990, coke plants in the United States began dying out, decreasing from more than 30 to 19 today.

Some couldn’t meet the new environmental regulations without costly upgrades. For others, it didn’t make economic sense to operate them because of tepid demand for steel, said Bruce Steiner, director of regulatory affairs for the American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute.

The economic factors have reversed. Not only has the steel industry improved, but foreign sources of coke are drying up as China is using up its supply, making it profitable to build capacity in the United States.

New plant construction also may be driven by older plants shutting down in the face of tougher pollution standards, said Lance Traves of Labyrinth Management Group, a Medina environmental consulting firm working on the Toledo project.

Coke, which is used to make steel from scratch, is made by baking metallurgical coal at high temperatures and then quenching it with water.

Most older coke plants use a technology that removes certain toxic chemicals from the waste gas and recycles them. Such plants are prone to unwanted emissions because the outward pressure created by the hot gas allows it to leak through doors and lids that aren’t well sealed.

On a flat plain along the Ohio River near Portsmouth sits the newest, and perhaps cleanest, coke plant in the country. It went into production last March and already the owner, Sun Coke Co., a subsidiary of Sunoco Inc., is seeking a permit to double its size.

Knoxville, TN-based Sun Coke also wanted approval to build a coke plant in Cambria County, PA, east of Pittsburgh. Other groups are considering new plants in Toledo and West Virginia, while a Chicago firm hopes to rebuild an idled coke plant there.

Sun Coke uses a technology that burns off toxic chemicals instead of trying to reclaim them and then transfers the waste heat to boilers to generate steam. The exhaust gas is then scrubbed of sulfur dioxide.

Sun Coke’s new plant in Ohio is in stark contrast to a conventional byproduct coke plant that fouled the air around nearby New Boston for decades until it closed three years ago.

“It was smoky and dirty and smelly,” said Noah Waddell, a trustee for Green Township, where Sun Coke’s new plant is located.

He said the Sun Coke plant is “probably 98 percent cleaner.”

Still, there are complaints.

Jim Sampson, who lives near the plant, said he has coal dust in his pool every day. But his biggest concern is the noise generated when rail cars are shaken during unloading. Its like a hammer being beaten against a silo, he said.

Sun Coke is erecting a sound barrier to help contain the noise, but Mike Dingus, president of Sun Coke, said the coal dust problem is the fault of the railroad, not Sun Coke.

Sampson disagrees, saying the problem has become far worse since the plant went into operation.