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EPA Wants to Revise Coke Oven Emissions Standards, But Not Enough to Address Unacceptable Risks

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this summer proposed policy revisions that will impact coke-making operations, including those at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and Cleveland Cliffs’ coke ovens in Monessen.

We’re here to break down these proposed new National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (or NESHAPs for short). Spoiler: The proposed revisions unfortunately offer much less than they could.

Some Necessary Background

As we reported last week, the Clean Air Act requires EPA to review NESHAPs for a particular category of sources eight years after it promulgates them. This review must confirm that the emissions permitted under the NESHAPs do not create an unacceptable health risk (this is what’s known as a residual risk review).

In this context, an unacceptable health risk means that emissions of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from the source category at any one facility are likely to cause more than 10 deaths or serious illnesses among 1 million people with lifetime exposure to those HAP emissions.

Still with us? Good. Next, EPA must determine whether control technologies have become available that could be used to reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants from the source category (this is called the technology review).

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to perform a technology review for each NESHAPs every eight years. However, EPA has taken the position that the Act requires it to perform only one residual risk review for each NESHAPs, eight years after a particular NESHAPs is first promulgated.

There are technically two sets of NESHAPs for coke manufacturing facilities, with each covering different sources within those facilities:

First, the NESHAPs for Coke Oven Batteries were promulgated in 1993 and revised in 2005 after a residual risk and technology review.

Second, the NESHAPs for Coke Ovens: Pushing, Quenching, and Battery Stacks were promulgated in 2003.

The proposed revisions EPA published on Aug. 16 cover both sets of NESHAPs and are thus based on the findings from the agency’s second technology review of the NESHAPs for Coke Oven Batteries and the first residual risk and technology review of the NESHAPs for Coke Ovens: Pushing, Quenching, and Battery Stacks.

As a result of those reviews, EPA has proposed three notable revisions to the NESHAPs, which are of varying significance in relation to the coke plants in Clairton and Monessen.

Three Revisions That Could Most Impact Clairton, Monessen Mills

First, EPA will require all coke-making facilities to monitor benzene concentrations at four spots along their fencelines. The monitors would be required to operate continuously and report benzene concentrations averaged over two-week-long periods.

Here’s how it would work: If a monitor detects benzene levels that are more than 3 micrograms/cubic meter higher than established background levels (AKA the ambient level of pollution that is not affected by local sources of pollution), the facility must conduct a root cause analysis and take corrective action.

If a facility’s monitors detect low levels of benzene, it will be permitted to sample on a less frequent basis.

Second, EPA will reduce the percentages of leaking coke oven doors, lids, and offtakes that are allowable under the NESHAPs, with the new limits being dependent upon the facility - the Clairton Coke Works will have stricter limits than all other facilities in the United States.

The limits that apply will also depend on the type of coke oven door – at Clairton, the allowable percentage of leaking coke oven doors will be higher for tall doors, while at all other facilities, those allowable percentages will be the same for both types of door.

“Although lower limits on leaking equipment are to be welcomed, it is difficult to predict how much pollution they will actually prevent because coke oven facilities regularly violate the higher, existing limits on such leaks and also to determine how much pollution equipment leaks actually create when they do occur,” GASP senior attorney John Baillie explained.

Third, EPA will establish emission limits for six HAPs from battery stacks at by-product recovery coke plants (which includes both Clairton and Monessen) for which no such limits currently exist.

The six HAPs are hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen cyanide, mercury, and metallic HAPs.

“It does not appear that these new limits will require either facility to add new controls or make changes to its operations; rather, the limits quantify allowable HAP emissions that have been occurring and will continue to occur,” Baillie said.

He continued:

“EPA did not perform a second residual risk review of the Coke Oven Batteries NESHAPs in connection with the proposed revisions it published on August 16. Which is too bad. If it had, additional emission or operating limits that save lives might be in the pipeline.”

In the residual risk review that EPA did perform for the Coke Oven Batteries: Pushing, Quenching, and Battery Stacks NESHAPs, EPA determined that although HAP emissions from pushing, quenching, and battery stacks at coke ovens do not pose an unacceptable risk under the existing NESHAPs, actual facility-wide emissions from coke ovens do:

[the maximum cancer risk posed by all sources of HAP at coke oven facilities] would remain unchanged, at 50-in-1 million because the whole facility [maximum individual risk] is driven by the estimated actual current fugitive emissions from coke oven doors … and we do not expect reductions of the actual emissions from doors as a result of this proposed rule.

“A risk level of 50-in-1 million exceeds EPA’s acceptable risk level by a whopping factor of five,” Baillie said, “EPA is failing the communities it has a duty to protect by not imposing stricter emission limits or operating requirements.”

EPA will accept comments on the proposed revisions through Oct. 23.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned, GASP is preparing sample comments so folks can easily weigh in on these important revisions.

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