Closed in January 2016, the Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island is a quiet place these days. A group of local activists would like to keep it that way: They’d like to see the site turned into a solar farm. A pipe dream? Maybe not. The utility that owns it actually has a robust recent history of investing in renewables. (Photo: Google Earth)
Last year when Leah Andrascik heard the Shenango Coke Works was closing, she thought it was a joke. Then, when she realized the news sent in an email by a fellow activist was true, she was relieved.
Andrascik lives just across the Ohio River from Neville Island, just north of Pittsburgh, where the coke plant was a constant source of concern for many residents. “When it was still in operation, there was a lot of dark smoke that would come out of the battery,” Andrascik says.
The battery is where the coke—a fuel derived from coal—was baked. She says the air smelled funny a lot of the time, and the sky was hazy. She was concerned for the health of her two small sons. That’s why she got involved with Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN). The group pressured the Allegheny County Health Department to take the coke plant to task over air quality violations and lobbied to shut it down.
LISTEN: What’s Next for the Shenango Coke Works Site?
DTE Energy, which owns the plant, cited the downturn in the steel industry as the reason it decided to shutter the plant. Andrascik says she felt bad that 173 workers lost their jobs, but this summer, she could let her boys play in their yard without having to worry about how the air was affecting them.
Now ACCAN is pushing for something else at the industrial site: a solar farm. The group has 800 signatures on a petition asking DTE to blanket Neville Island with solar arrays.
“It would be the first one in the Pittsburgh area,” Andrascik says. And she thinks it would be a feather in the city’s cap.
DTE owns one of the largest solar arrays in the eastern U.S, and another project in Lapeer, Michigan is expected to produce enough energy to power 9,000 homes. These sites incorporate hundreds of thousands of solar panels, and the utility is also building a smaller, urban solar array in Detroit.
A company spokesperson says it hasn’t yet determined a plan for the 50-acre Shenango site, but DTE Energy is aware of the petition and appreciates the community’s interest. Right now, the utility is working on cleaning up the site.
Leah Andrascik says her group is concerned that the development of Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County will influence how the Shenango site is redeveloped. The cracker plant will produce polyethylene pellets to sell to plastics manufacturers.
“That would open up a whole host of different industry,” Andrascik says. “They call it downriver industry.”
For Andrascik, that means more pollution. She says Pittsburgh has worked hard to redefine itself from being the “Smoky City” to a clean and green leader that gets national attention for its bike trails and LEED certified buildings. With that track record, Andrascik thinks installing clean energy technology at the Shenango site just makes sense.
“I think that would go just one step further in saying we want to choose development that’s not going to impact the health of our citizens and that’s not going to impact the environment,” she says.
###This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.