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Owner of Erie Coke plant pays environmental fines ; Tonawanda Coke was also cited

The Buffalo owner of an Erie, Pa., coke plant paid a $6 million fine Thursday for environmental violations there and agreed to comply with environmental laws and regulations, raising hopes a similar pact can be reached for the owner's Tonawanda Coke plant.

The agreement legally binds Erie Coke and owner J.D. Crane to resolve past air-quality violations, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The settlement's timetable of improvements includes rebuilding 27 of 58 coke ovens within three years that Pennsylvania investigators found to be cracked and emitting pollutants.

Locally, the state Department of Environmental Conservation on Thursday cited Tonawanda Coke for a series of air-quality violations punishable by a civil penalty up to $15,000, along with an additional penalty up to $15,000 for each day a violation continues.

For Tonawanda Coke, these were the latest in a series of environmental violations cited by state and federal agencies over the past 10 months.

"I'm so excited for the community down in Erie, which now has a guarantee that the air they breathe will be cleaner," said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, which has led an effort to force Tonawanda Coke to comply with state and federal regulations.

A Crane representative declined to comment Thursday.

The Pennsylvania consent decree was developed after Pennsylvania issued an order May 24 that revoked Erie Coke's air permit and called for its closure within 72 hours. Erie Coke appealed the order, and an Environmental Hearing Board judge temporarily stayed the order.

An attorney for Crane had warned at the hearing that the plant's 120 employees could lose their jobs if shuttered by state regulators.

"This consent decree will keep family-supporting jobs in Erie without sacrificing the air we breathe," said DEP Northwest Regional Director Kelly Burch in a statement.

The settlement "confirms that no one is above the law," said DEP Secretary John Hanger. He estimated cleanup costs at around $15 million.

The settlement calls on Crane and Erie Coke to:

*Bring the coke facility into compliance with state and federal clean-air regulations.

*Repair or replace within three months the existing emissions control device that captures emissions from the pushing operation and replace it within 18 months with more effective technology.

*Complete end-flue repairs within two years to coke ovens not being rebuilt.

*Complete a series of boiler and battery stack tests within three months to determine emissions associated with coking operations.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com