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Geneva Steel's decision to spend $70 million on new pollution controls is a progressive move.

Company experts believe that by switching the polluting open hearth furnaces to a basic oxygen process furnace, emissions of PM10 (the tiniest, most hazardous particles) from the furnace will be cut by 92 percent. A coke oven gas catalytic sulfur remover also will be installed, cutting sulfur emissions by 95 percent.Altogether, Geneva's PM10 pollution should be cut by 55 percent, the company reckons. That is only 2 percent less than a 57 percent reduction that the state wants. The company thinks the changes will actually achieve a greater reduction than Utah could have legally required.

As Joseph A. Cannon, the company's president, noted in a Deseret News meeting Tuesday, this is basically a done deal. The project will be finished within 2 1/2 years.

Under the Clean Air Act, the state couldn't order changes before it adopts a final State Implementation Plan on PM10, which probably won't happen for a year. Then the Clean Air Act allows a company three years to complete such changes, with a nearly automatic extension of another two years. That's six years altogether, if Geneva chose to stand and fight.

Instead, it is moving now, with contracts already signed for the construction. "It's a unilateral move that couldn't be required by the state," Cannon said. "We're not saying, `We'll do this if you give us a break.' "

He noted that the cost is equal to paying about $1,000 to every household in Utah County. The high price is significant because it is a good indication that Geneva is committed to staying in business.

"It'll hurt our profits the next couple of years," Cannon said. "We'll have to borrow some money to do it . . . The bottom line, of course, is, will we be viable? We think that we are."

Cannon bristles at the criticism his company gets for air pollution. But he says wryly, "We're the biggest and ugliest down there. We admit it."

About 175 jobs will be eliminated when the switch is made to the oxygen furnace. "What we're hoping to do is retrain them for other jobs in the mill . . . (But) the fact is it's not a social service agency. If we aren't selling the steel we may have to lay somebody off."

Meanwhile, Geneva's profits are the highest per ton of any such mill in the country, and the company hasn't had to lay off anybody in two years.

Jim Scherer, the EPA's regional director in Denver, coincidentally visited the Deseret News the same day. "I am very pleased by their stepping out front and moving forward to help the state meet their State Implementation Plan," he said. "Whether they are able to meet it, I really don't know."

The company's approach is positive, Scherer said, and "we feel very good that they are state-of-the-art today. It's still going to be real tight for the state to write an implementation plan" that meets the standard.

"I hope it (Geneva's upgrading) will meet a lot of concerns in the Provo-Orem area. We have been trying to encourage that kind of modernization" by industry.

Burnell Cordner, director of the state's Bureau of Air Quality, was pleased with Geneva's announcement. "The timing is even beating the time frame that the (Utah Air Conservation) committee proposed," he said.

He would like to see Geneva's plans and drawings to verify the data and make sure the projects would achieve the PM10 reduction the company predicts.

The health standard allows 150 micrograms of PM10 per cubic meter of air. Last winter, Utah County's air pollution violated the PM10 standard 22 times. This past February, during the worst PM10 episode in West Orem that winter, the level reached 263.

Another problem may require attention: Geneva is a huge producer of carbon monoxide, at 25,000 tons per year. As of Nov. 20, Utah County had exceeded the federal primary health standard for carbon monoxide three times in November.

Cannon believes the plant's carbon monoxide emissions do not harm Utah County air quality. He says carbon monoxide goes up 500-foot stacks and is dispersed without damaging air quality at ground level.

But Cordner said, "We're not convinced that's true. In fact, we're having a tracer study done from Geneva and from Pacific States Cast Iron this winter."

In tracer studies, a rare inert gas is released from a smokestack. Wherever the gas is subsequently detected, the stack's normal pollution may be going.

The new tests began just over a week ago. Last winter, he said, a partial tracer study showed some impact in Provo from Geneva - a preliminary indication.

"We didn't complete it, so we're going back to do three different evaluations at three different inversion condition," Cordner said.

The early indication may be verified, and might not be.

Meanwhile, Cannon and Geneva deserve congratulations for the upgrading program.