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The entrance to Erie Coke. (Amanda Gillooly/Group Against Smog and Pollution)

(Erie) — A coke plant in northwestern Pennsylvania will be allowed to continue operating until a hearing board rules on its appeal of state environmental officials efforts to shut the plant down.

A judge on Pennsylvania’s Environmental Hearing Board on Friday granted a delay pending a hearing beginning Wednesday of an appeal of the state Department of Environmental protection’s denial of Erie Coke Corp.’s application to renew its operating permit.

Erie Coke attorney Paul Stockman said failure of the board to grant relief would in effect impose “a corporate ‘death penalty'” on the company by destroying its primary asset — two batteries of coke ovens.”

“Because they are constructed of brick that is maintained at an approximately 2,000 Fahrenheit operating temperature, a coke facility that is allowed to cool loses structural integrity – effectively crumbling – and it cannot thereafter be successfully restarted and operated,” the company said.

If allowed to continue operating, the plant would still be subject to environmental officials’ oversight and workers would continue to improve the facility’s compliance, the company argued.

Erie Coke filed an appeal Tuesday after the department denied the permit renewal and filed a complaint in Erie County Court to shut the plant down, citing years of numerous repetitive environmental violations.”

Environmental Secretary Patrick McDonnell said there had been “persistent complaints” from the community for more than a decade, and despite many opportunities to address the violations their “frequency and severity” of had only increased.

Erie Coke called the move “a shock,” saying a detailed compliance plan had been filed in April and the company thought it had been “making great progress” on what it called “a herculean effort.”

The plant, which produces coke, a key ingredient in the steelmaking process, employs 125 people. A threatened shutdown in 2010 was averted through a court-ordered settlement.