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Coking hearing packs Oregon Council Chambers

By J. Patrick Eaken
Press Staff Writer

A public hearing Thursday night hosted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency on a draft permit for the proposed coking plant in Oregon packed City Council Chambers to the point people were listening to testimony via speakers in the hallway.

Available seats in the chamber were filled at least a half hour before the scheduled 7 p.m. meeting was to begin. Ohio EPA officials were still listening to testimony four hours later.

Elected officials, most of whom would like to see the permit issued, were allowed to speak first, so that by 11 p.m. many of those who had registered to give testimony and had environmental concerns had already left, leaving the administrator of the meeting, Mary McCarron of the Public Interest Center, to call names of people who were not there to answer.  

The meeting drew an environmentalist from the University of Michigan concerned about mercury poisoning that would be emitted from the proposed plant, a former Oregon women who moved to Michigan because of her claims of high toxicity in the area, and local residents who believe that assurances the coke plant will be environmentally safe is nonsense.

Many local residents remain skeptical about the "state-of-the-art" technology that is supposed to contain pollutants. They say mercury will be emitted from the plant, which when released into the air will then be carried by prevailing winds and be harmful to life in Lake Erie. It was reported that the EPA is not required to monitor mercury levels emitted into the atmosphere.

In testimony, several residents urged government officials to consider the effect the loss of the potent Lake Erie fishing industry would have on the local economy in comparison to economic benefits gained from the coke plant. An advisory has already been issued asking people to limit their intake of eating Lake Erie fish to one catch per week due to mercury levels.

One of the most heated moments of the evening was the argument over why the EPA had expedited its review of the draft permit. Many believe it was done to beat the approaching deadline this summer when Lucas County environmental standards will change to non-attainment status. Mike Hopkins of the Division of Air Pollution Control admitted the permit was processed quickly, but said it was for economic development reasons.

Hopkins and officials from Toledo Environmental Services also admitted that they did not know who the actual investors were behind U.S. Coking Group, LLC, the company proposing to build and operate the plant. The officials indicated it is not required for the EPA to have information on who the investors are; the only requirement for the permit to be processed was to have the name and address of a person representing the firm for legal purposes.

Sandy Buchanan, Executive Director of the consumer group Ohio Citizens Action, said in a letter to several public officials that statements identify Frank Stella, Chairman and CEO of the F.D. Stella Products Company in Detroit, as the lead investor of U.S. Coking Group, LLC. Stella Products design and distribute food service and dining equipment.

Sandy Bihn, former City of Oregon Finance Director and founder of Maumee Bay Associates, a citizens group seeking non profit status in order to obtain funding to promote their environmental concerns, gave statements about permits the EPA has approved which she says continue to prove detrimental today.

She noted environmental issues at Envirosafe, at the Toledo Edison plant, and the BP oil refinery, explaining that those companies either received permits or are still waiting for renewals to this day.

C.J. Smith, Oregon, handed out a statement to those in attendance at the meeting with figures he says he researched. Smith says his calculations along with figures from a website and City of Oregon sources say that while the top 20 industrial polluters in Lucas County released almost 17 million pounds of pollutants into the environment in 2001, better than 13.5 million pounds were released by industry within Oregon.

Smith and Bihn say the draft permit indicates eight million pounds of additional pollutants will be released into the environment by the coke plant. They argue that Lucas County already ranks among the dirtiest and worst 10 percent of all counties in the U.S. in terms of air releases of recognized developmental toxicants.

The former Oregon woman who says she moved to Michigan explained that she did so after she was diagnosed with cancer. She then put forth testify indicating Lucas County had an exceptional high rate of cancer due to toxic emissions.

Figures given by C.J. Smith found on the Environmental Defense website indicate that in Lucas County people face a cancer risk more than 100 times the goal set by the Clean Air Act.

Public officials providing testimony in favor of the coke plant included Toledo Mayor Jack Ford, Oregon Mayor Marge Brown, Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, council members from Oregon and Toledo, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority President James Hartung, Oregon City Schools Superintendent John Hall, Oregon Regional Economic Development Foundation Executive Director Dean Monske, as well as contractors and real estate agents.

One public official, a man who said he was a councilman from the Village of Harbor View, opposed the plant. He presented a resolution unanimously passed by the Harbor View Council requesting the EPA to consider denying the permit. He told stories of the abuse Harbor View had undergone as a result of pollutants traveling downwind from industry in Oregon and Toledo.

Those in favor of the proposed plant rely on the argument that the plant contains state-of-the art technology and would bring badly needed jobs to the area and help recover a disappearing industrial base. They say the environment will not have to be sacrificed for the sake of growth as it had been by previous generations.

Elected officials continue to stress the importance of the 165 permanent jobs the plant will bring plus 1,000 construction jobs. This figure will multiply exponentially, they explain, as money comes into the community.

Port Authority President Hartung explained the need for the rebirth of shipping in Toledo's port, which will be partly satisfied by the coke operation. The coke operation will import coal and export coke via Great Lakes shipping channels as well as by rail and truck.

The plant would be built on the Port's Facility 2 property, a brownfield. Those who want the plant say this alleviates the possibility of the facility being built on green space elsewhere; adding that if the plant is not built in Oregon the jobs will just end up going somewhere else.

Permanent workers at the proposed plant are expected to be paid at the high end of the industrial scale, say elected officials. They explain that because coke is a raw material for the production for steel, it is in high demand in the United States right now.

Hartung says the U.S. is currently losing out on the production of steel to foreign countries. By bringing back the production of steel to this country and Toledo, it will help satisfy numerous other aspects of the economy.

Oregon Council President Jim Sheehy spoke about his past experiences working as a railroad engineer and the condition of a former coke plant located in the area, describing the dust and filth of the former operation and saying he understood concerns about coking operations. But he assured those to trust the newer technology and the EPA's ability to regulate emissions.

A developer and real estate agent explained that "our fathers and grandfathers didn't know any better, but today we do." Sheehy and council colleagues say after holding meetings with representatives from U.S. Coking they believe the company will be a "good neighbor".

Many of those in favor of the plant expressed that they, too, were residents of Oregon, and had concerns of their own, adding that if they felt the environmental concerns were bad enough the plant would never become reality. 

Mayor Ford testified that he investigated the new technology and found that much of the information published in past news reports regarding the projected emissions at the plant had been exaggerated.

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