Bluestone Coke, a 100-year old Birmingham. Ala. factory that produces a key component in steelmaking and is partially owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, must pay nearly $1 million under a Dec. 9 state consent decree for violating federal clean air rules by releasing toxic emissions from coke ovens.

The agreement was filed in a state court for approval.

The plant heats coal to produce coke and recovers the by-products, volatile organic compounds, that it sells as crude coal tar, light oil and aluminum sulfate.

Bluestone Coke has been idle since October 2021 and may not operate again until it is rebuilt to an “undetermined” degree, the agreement said. 

As part of a required corrective action plan outlined in the agreement, the company must hire an independent professional engineer with significant experience in Clean Air Act regulatory compliance that applies to the by-product recovery coke making process to assess the scope of work needed. 

ProPublica said in a September report that industry experts familiar with the plant estimate it would cost more than $150 million to rebuild and operate the plant. If and when that happens, Bluestone must pay an engineer to inspect the facility every two months for two years.

The consent order will provide the certainty that the company needs to evaluate the plant’s future, said an attorney for Gov. Justice. “Despite investing tens of millions of dollars in long-deferred maintenance, Bluestone was unable to fully overcome those challenges and it ultimately concluded that only a rebuild would allow the plant to operate profitably and in compliance with environmental requirements,” attorney Steve Ruby told ProPublica. 

In denying the plant’s operating permit in 2021, the Jefferson County, Ala., Board of Health found that, Bluestone "has not shown that its machines and equipment are expected to operate without emitting air contaminants, and ... has demonstrated that it is unable to operate its machines and equipment in compliance with the regulations.”

The permit denial followed years of citations for permit violations, including hazardous emissions from leaking coke ovens. Air samples collected by two environmental advocacy groups, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Air Pollution
(GASP), found elevated levels of benzene and naphthalene.

Additionally, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency modeling found the property to be a sulfur dioxide hotspot, the Southern Environmental Law Center said. 

Half of Bluestone's $925,000 penalty must fund green spaces and clear blight in communities adjacent to the plant. The manufacturer also will be required to build a fence around the property and monitor for sulfur dioxide for five years.