A soft coke market and environmental challenges have killed a planned Sun Coke plant at Mine 33 – and with it the hopes for 750 new jobs.

Terminally ill for months, the planned Sun Coke plant died quietly as the state permit expired earlier this month without construction starting.

Environmental groups feared high soot, mercury and sulfur emissions.

State and county officials are disappointed.

“It was a clean alternative energy source that would have created jobs. It’s a big disappointment,” said Helen Humphries Short, spokeswoman with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Despite the setback, a related project is expected to come on line – and at full production create 200 jobs. A state permit is pending for Amfire Mining to mine an untapped coal seam in Cresson Township.

As first planned, Latrobe-based Amfire would have been tied to the coke plant. But when the coke market cooled and the plant was delayed in court, Amfire said it was still interested in mining the site – with or without Sun Coke.

In Ebensburg, County Commissioner Bill Harris is trying to be optimistic about the loss of the coke plant.

“Somehow, I hope Sun Coke can gain interest again,” he said. “Maybe the soft coke market will come back.”

An international coke market was red-hot in 2005 when Gov. Ed Rendell fast-tracked the coal-to-coke plant permit, but later went soft, with demand slowing and prices dropping. The price of coke, used in the production of steel, has fallen from $400 per ton to just $100, DEP said.

Added to that were delays caused by the Harrisburg-based PennFuture’s environmental appeal – filed in May 2005 and yet to be heard in state court.

But PennFuture officials said they never sought to kill the project. “We never intended to stop this plant. We just wanted it cleaner,” said Jean Clark, PennFuture’s director of communications. “SunCoke made its choice based on the worldwide coke market.”

But county officials say the environmental appeal played a key role. “That’s the sad part of it,” Harris said. “The environmental challenge slowed down the company’s enthusiasm, and while the process was slowed down, the softening coke market came along.

“I was convinced the plant would be safe. I’m an outdoorsman and a trout fishmerman, but I’m convinced that ... we only needed to let EPA monitor it.”

United Mine Workers official Dan Kane said from his office in Virginia that he is not surprised by the news.

“Given the long delay, I can un-derstand that decision. As for the coke market, that has its ups and downs,” Kane said. “I’m mostly sorry that the area is going to miss out on a number of good jobs.”

The Sun Coke project was unveiled in March 2005, with Gov. Ed Rendell promising to fast-track the permit to open the door for 750 new jobs.

Plans called for SunCoke Co., a division of Sunoco, to build a new coal-coke manufacturing and heat-recovery facility at Mine 33 in Cambria Township.

The 280-oven facility would have been capable of producing in excess of 1.5 million tons of coke per year, to have been sold to International Steel Group of Cleveland. Steam produced as a byproduct would have been converted to electricity by an on-site 125-megawatt power plant.

Time line

March 2005: Gov. Ed Rendell announces a coal-mining and coke-making project near Ebensburg, saying it would bring 750 jobs.

April 4, 2005: State Department of Environmental Protection OKs a plan for Sun Coke Inc. to begin construction of the coal-to-coke plant.

April 5, 2005: Federal changes take effect that require stricter emissions reductions at facilities such as the proposed coke plant.

May 2005: Harrisburg-based PennFuture appeals the coke-plant permit, raising environmental concerns.

October 2005: The deadline for a $3.3-million state grant expires, but project sponsors say plans are still alive, pending environmental appeals.

2006: With more than a year gone by, the permit appeal remains in state court and the international market for coke softens.

October: The DEP permit expires and SunCoke says it no longer is interested

in the project.

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