Signaling an end to another piece of Pittsburgh’s steel industry past, DTE Energy Services announced last week that it will be closing the Shenango coke plant on Neville Island, putting 173 workers out of a job just before Christmas. The announcement came as a shock to union leaders, who were in the midst of negotiating for a new contract when it was made.
Pittsburgh Business Times reporter Matt Stroud, who broke the story, shared the sentiment, saying that only a month earlier DTE was pledging $41 million in improvements for the plant.
A lack of buyers for Shenango’s coke seems a likely causefor the plant’s closure. The plant went from having six buyers in 2012 to only two this year to eventually zero.
“They are out of customers,” Stroud said. “They have literally zero customers left.”
The rising strength of the US dollar has made production of steel very expensive in the United States, Stroud said, causing many companies to start buying from cheaper sources such as China.
While some may bemoan the loss of the plant, environmentalists are celebrating. Ted Popovich, co-founder of Allegheny County Clean Air Now, described Shenango’s closure as an “early Christmas present.” Popovich, who lives within three miles of the plant, suffers from cardio-vascular disease that is made worse by Shenango’s operation.
Shenango had a history of many health and environmental violations. The factory was facing a county health violation at the time of its closure. Furthermore, the production of coke is worse environmentally than the burning of coal, according to Reid Frazier, a reporter for Allegheny Front.
Of particular concern was the amount of benzene put out by the plant’s operation. Dr. Albert Presto, who is part of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, described benzene as a carcinogenic gas and was reportedly found in much higher amounts around Neville Island than in downtown Pittsburgh.
However, it may be too early to celebrate just yet. While DTE will be closing the plant, it is unclear whether they will be selling Shenango to another company or demolishing it all together. Should DTE plan on selling the plant, it would be placed in “hot idle,” where the furnaces are kept running, but not producing any coke.
Still, for the time being Popovich is celebrating the plant’s closure, and he is not alone.
“[The residents of communities near Shenango] are in in disbelief,” Popovich said. “They’re being doubting Thomases about it at the moment, but they love the idea.”
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