Workers were told Thursday that Erie Coke, the plant that has been at the center of a protracted fight with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), is now closed.

Some of the plant's more than 100 workers found that out when they showed up to work Thursday morning, only to be turned away at the plant gates.

Erie News Now spoke with Bill Hull, an Erie Coke employee of 8 years. He tells us that plant security confirmed the news to him when he arrived at the plant around 6 a.m. He says only maintenance workers have been asked to stay in order to purge the ovens. 

A meeting involving city officials, the DEP and union representatives is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

The state denied a request to renew the chemical company's operating permit. It was supposed to go into a local courtroom to be decided next year.

More recently, the City of Erie told plant leaders they could no longer put their wastewater into the municipal sewer system.

The DEP announced July 1 it denied Erie Coke's application to renew its operating permit. It also filed for an injunction to shut down the coke production facility due to years of repeated air and water pollution violations.

The case is currently before the Environmental Hearing Board.

The coke turned out by the plant is used in the iron and steel industries, and it produces a lot of potential air and water pollution. The company's ability to contain and control those chemicals has been at the heart of the ongoing fight with the DEP.

The Erie Coke name has been around since 1987, but the plant's roots can be traced all the way back to 1833.

Union representative addresses Erie Coke closure

City of Erie Mayor Joe Schember addresses Erie News Now's questions about Erie Coke

Wastewater issues

A 30-day notice issued by the City of Erie against Erie Coke to comply with wastewater treatment rules expired Dec. 15.

Under the cease-and-desist order, Erie Coke is not permitted to put industrial wastewater into the municipal sewer system, according to city solicitor Ed Betza. He said the company is working towards compliance but total compliance has not yet been obtained.

Erie Coke has been forced to truck away its wastewater until the company is in compliance.

The City of Erie said it was concerned federal authorities could crack down on the city if it failed to take action.

Air monitoring

In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection opened up a follow-up investigation near Erie Coke based on the results of its passive air monitoring sampling.

The first three sets of results showed benzene concentrations were higher than the action level set forth in the sampling plan. The plan calls for further investigation due to the levels.

The 13 air monitoring devices were deployed July 17 as part of a year-long sampling plan to monitor for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

The sampling started in response to concerns raised by a community stakeholder group and recent DEP actions requiring Erie Coke to address numerous, ongoing Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act violations.

Initial hearing

A Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board judge allowed the Erie Coke plant to continue to operate with conditions in late August.

The ruling came almost a week after both sides met to reach a settlement.

In a 34-page opinion and order, Judge Steven Beckman outlines the conditions under which the coke plant can remain open.

Conditions outlined in the order include following the compliance plan submitted during a six-day-long hearing in July. For the duration outlined in the order, Erie Coke cannot produce any furnace coke at the facility, and all coal used in coke production must remain on site. The order also dictates Erie Coke must follow the environmental compliance plan given to the court and set aside a separate bank account for capital improvements to the site.

At that time, Beckman also set a full hearing on Erie Coke's appeal for Feb. 3, 2020, at the Environmental Hearing Board facility in the Renaissance Centre in Erie.

The ruling indefinitely postponed an injunction hearing originally scheduled for September in Erie County Court.