GRANITE CITY, Ill.(USA) - Construction began Monday on a coke-making plant that will provide fuel and steam to an adjacent steel foundry in a $570-million venture.
The project has already been signed off on by two environmental groups assured that the site will include technology to cut a specific type of air pollution.
Gateway Energy and Coke Co., a unit of Philadelphia-based Sunoco Inc., will build and run the $290 million plant. It is expected to supply as much as 650,000 tons of coke a year that will be sold to a nearby United States Steel Corp. plant in this St. Louis suburb.
Financial terms of that 15-year contract were not disclosed.
Coke, a fuel used to superheat ovens for steel-making, is produced when coal is ''cooked'' at high temperatures to remove any moisture or gases.
A byproduct of the coke-making -- hot flue gas -- will be used by a $280 million cogeneration site U.S. Steel plans to build and run, converting the gas into electricity that will power the steel mill.
Two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the American Bottom Conservancy, have agreed not to legally challenge the air pollution permits issued for the project by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
The companies have promised the groups that the coke plant would deploy technology that would significantly reduce fine particulates emitted by the plant. The particulates are air pollution that can lodge deep inside a person's lungs and make its way into the bloodstream.
Company officials touted the project's environmental stewardship and the 88 jobs the new plant would create. They were joined at a groundbreaking ceremony by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, state lawmakers from the region and Republican U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of nearby Collinsville.
The planned coke plant would help solidify the steel mill's some 2,000 jobs in Granite City, a town of 31,000 residents where steelmaking dates back more than a century.
''Steel has been and still is the backbone of our economic strength,'' Mayor Ed Hagnauer told the roughly 150 people who gathered under a huge white tent on a vacant lot. Dignitaries later ceremoniously broke ground with glistening spades, the pungent, sulphur-like stench of the neighboring steel factory unavoidable.
Kathy Andria, a member of both environmental groups, called the pollution-cutting technology of the new plant ''a first step'' in curbing Granite City's air pollution.
Just last week, the American Lung Association named St. Louis the nation's seventh most-polluted city. The rankings were based on ozone pollution levels produced when heat and sunlight come into contact with pollutants from power plants, cars, refineries and other sources.
The lung association also studied particle pollution levels emitted from these sources.
''I think you will agree this project strikes the right balance between environmental stewardship and business development,'' said John Goodish, U.S. Steel's executive vice president and chief operating officer.
The companies also have agreed to fund $5 million in local projects meant to help clean up the air.
Construction of the coke plant is expected to take 18 months.