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Erie Coke Signals Shutdown Amid Mounting Pollution Concerns

John Minchillo
In this Oct. 24, 2017, file photo, vehicles travel along State Street, the main thoroughfare through town, as seen from the Bicentennial Tower in Erie, Pa.

A coke plant in northwestern Pennsylvania turned away employees who showed up for work Thursday morning, signaling the apparent shutdown of an operation that had faced mounting regulatory pressure over its environmental record.

Erie Coke Corp. employed more than 130 people at the plant, which uses coal to produce foundry coke, a key ingredient in the steelmaking process.

“We just got here and they said we don’t have a job,” said an employee, Justin Pastuha, who stood at the entrance to the plant Thursday morning with about a dozen other workers.

The city of Erie had recently forced Erie Coke to halt the discharge of wastewater into the municipal sewer system. That came after Pennsylvania environmental officials denied the renewal of the company’s operating permit and took legal action in an effort to get the plant shut down, citing years of environmental violations.

The company has paid millions of dollars in fines for violating state and federal air quality laws.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said Thursday it would reach out to company officials to ensure the shutdown is “being done in a safe and orderly fashion and in accordance with state regulations.” The state labor department dispatched a rapid response team to aid affected workers.

Erie Mayor Joe Schember told reporters that company officials had not been in touch with the city, but he believes the city’s decision to block Erie Coke from using the sanitary system played a role in the apparent shutdown.

“I think that it’s very expensive, obviously, to truck all the stuff they’re putting down the sewer to another location,” he said.

Erie Coke had said previously that any interruption in operations could permanently disable the plant’s coke ovens. The plant had operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Company officials did not immediately release a statement Thursday, and the plant’s main number appeared to be disconnected.

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