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Sun Coke Company contends technology is better

By J. Patrick Eaken
Press Staff Writer

The debate continues on whether a proposal by U.S. Coking, Ltd. to construct and operate a coking plant in Oregon will do more harm than good or more good than harm.

To get a better understanding of the technology involved in the industry today, City of Oregon officials, environmental consultants, business leaders, a reporter from the Metro Press, and even a community member concerned enough to see it all for herself traveled to East Chicago, Indiana to visit the Indiana Harbor Coke Plant.

Sun Coke Company, which operates the plant, owns eight patents for the heat recovery process that they say produces no or little emissions. Sun Coke Technology Development Manager Mike Barkdoll confirmed that U.S. Coking had to buy patent rights to be able to use the same technology in the proposed plant in Oregon.

Sun Coke Company also owns patents for this state-of-the-art technology in every country of the world producing coke, except China and Russia. Coke is described as the hardest metal made by man that when heated at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit still maintains its solidity, and therefore can be heated to produce steel.

When you travel to East Chicago you enter a world much like a science fiction movie. There is industry stretching for miles along the Lake Michigan coastline through Gary, Indiana complete with steel mills, large industrial complexes, and smokestacks along every horizon. Amidst it all, there are also marinas, casinos, hotels, and plenty of seagulls.

Sun Coke Company engineers and operations managers took the tourists, nine of them in all, to witness every aspect of the operation at Indiana Harbor. The tour lasted four hours and the group walked probably more than a mile through puddles and coke dust and onto industrial platforms to witness the production.

There are 288 ovens which heat coal into coke, four pusher-charger machines, four hot cars that carry the coal to and from the ovens, two conventional wet quench stations that cool the coal, coal silos, two computer-controlled coke wharves, control rooms at a couple locations, and much more covering enough acreage to provide for a small college campus. U.S. Coking is proposing 240 ovens for the Oregon plant.

The tour guides took their visitors close enough to the ovens that they could actually feel the heat being generated, watch the coal transported to and from furnaces, and then took them into computer rooms where operators monitored heat and emissions on computers programmed with Microsoft Windows based operating systems. The guides contend that the controls on these emission reports, produced sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis, are proof that the technology employed here meets the standards for safe living.

Sun Coke Company representatives they invented the technology to be used in the plant proposed for the Toledo area and used it at their first facility built in rural Virginia in 1963. The technology was a modification of an idea first generated by a coking company in Australia.

In 1963, the concept of the heat recovery system considered to be far different than the combustion methods used generations ago began with three ovens. When the experiment succeeded the company added many more ovens and began full operations. Today, the company says the Virginia plant produces 650,000 tons of coke a year.

Mr. Barkdoll says The Indiana Harbor plant is a six year old plant that has already become outdated compared to some of the processes that will be used at the plant proposed for Oregon. Here, rail cars carrying coal in and out of the furnaces are to be contained (completely enclosed) as will all coal and coke throughout the plant. At Indiana Harbor, they are not.

Mr. Barkdoll addressed questions from Sylvania resident Sue Horvath concerning mercury emissions and whether water is emitted into Lake Michigan at the plant. Both are completely controlled, he says, adding that practically no mercury is emitted and absolutely no water is put back into the lake.

He contends the Indiana Plant drops 17,000 gallons of water a day, but 3,000 evaporate into the air and 14,000 are used for cooling, providing 100 percent reuse and no net discharge. Meanwhile, the process prevents almost all the mercury from being emitted, whereas in the older combustion coke plants all of the mercury was emitted.

The Indiana Harbor plant sits next to a steel mill owned by Inland Steel, therefore the steam at that site is used to produce electricity to operate the steel mill. The Indiana Harbor plant employs 120 people, most of whom are computer and machine operators, compared to the 500 people that would have been needed at the older plants, many of whom performed manual labor.

Except for a couple individuals who were seen spraying water to cool processed coke, no employee during the tour was seen doing anything other than operating controls. The entire process of converting coal to coke using the new technology takes 48 hours. At the Indiana Harbor plant much of the coal is shipped directly via conveyer belt to the steel mill sitting next door and the rest is shipped out by rail.

The Ohio EPA is expected on Monday to announce whether or not they will approve a final permit to allow for monitoring of air controls for the plant in Oregon. Lance Traves, an environmental consultant, says there are other permits that will have to be approved, giving community members an additional chance to comment at a public hearing. Mr. Traves firm, Labyrinth Management Group, with offices in Canton, has contracted with U.S. Coking to aid in the company's attempts to seek environmental permits.

A draft permit already approved by the EPA states eight million pounds of pollutants will be emitted into the air by the plant, close to three times the amount emitted by a combustion coking plant that was once located in East Toledo. But the new plant is also expected to produce far more coke.

U.S. Coking consultants say that much of that figure of eight million pounds is a result of research conducted on uncontrolled emissions, where all mercury, sulphur dioxide, and other pollutants are emitted freely into the air. But the consultants and technology managers from the East Chicago plant say that figure is, in fact, nowhere close to reality with this new technology.

They say the day has come when industry can produce and burn coal so that emissions can be either recycled or converted into something other than a pollutant. Mr. Barkdoll says even the carbon monoxide that is released at Indiana Harbor is actually in smaller proportions than the carbon monoxide found in the atmosphere, adding that they are doing more to "clean the air" in some cases.

Consultants confirm the findings, saying the public has totally misinterpreted the capabilities of industry today. Whether or not the public, especially environmental activists, believe their contentions are another story after common knowledge about the history of what industry has been doing to the environment for generations.

In Lucas County, levels will become non attainable for air permits once again this summer. Part of the reason in any major city that pollution levels are high is the large volume of carbon monoxide emitted from automobile traffic. In Maumee Bay, environmentalists say agricultural runoff has a lot to do with the problems with the water shed.

Environmentalists even go so far to say that one of the biggest pollutants today is the methane produced by livestock and the sulphur from diesel fuel. One consultant said the government has mandated that all sulphur, a lubricant for diesel engines, must be removed from the fuel by 2006. They are contending there are many more serious problems today than those caused by industry, which they say is solving those problems with technology.    

The junket may have had the express purpose of demonstrating that "the sky is not actually falling," as Oregon Councilman Mike Sheehy once stated, but it did provide some proof that many of the conceptions about modern coke plants are false. A railroad engineer, Mr. Sheehy, was part of a crew that years ago transported coal to the old coke plant in East Toledo. He admitted on the junket that the new plant was exceptionally cleaner than what he remembered from previous experiences at the former combustion plant.

The Indiana Harbor Coke Plant is owned by the Sun Coke Company, which is affiliated with Sun Oil, the same company that operates a refinery in East Toledo. EPA officials on the junket warned not to assume Sun Oil was an investor in U.S. Coking, however, it is still unknown even to them who the actual investors actually are.

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