Safety concerns force the closure of coke ovens

LEETONIA – Village council Wednesday voted unanimously to temporarily close the Cherry Valley Coke Ovens effective immediately until further notice for health and safety reasons.

Ongoing maintenance issues relating to internal drainage threatens the rail channels, according to Coke Oven Commission member Julie Jasiota, who made a report on the oven’s condition.

Consisting of 200 coke ovens and built by the Leetonia Iron and Coal Company just after the Civil War, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

An Ohio Historical Marker was added in 1999 and, aside from the Connellsville Coke District in Pennsylvania, it represents one of the largest remaining intact beehive coke ovens in North America.

The “beehive” ovens purified coal and turned it into coke that was burned in iron and steel furnaces.

Jasiota said the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has a maintenance work order due by Oct. 15 and should be on the site before then.

She said drainage is needed to redirect water away from the ovens and noted deep mine sediment is present.

“If you fall into something you have to be able to get out if it,” she said, explaining that in order to prod the ODNR an element of “urgency” has to be attached to it.

The number one concern is safety, she said, adding that phase II of ODNR’s maintenance plan would take care of the safety issue. She suggested council members “walk the site and voice your concerns” to ODNR officials and write letters conveying a sense of urgency.

After Jasiota’s presentation, Mayor Artie Altomare immediately recommended closing the park because of safety and maintenance issues and Jasiota said that would be the “perfect argument for the sense of urgency.”

Councilwoman Sue Buchanan wondered about giving guided tours so people from out-of-town could visit and have them sign waivers, but Solicitor Walter Newton said he didn’t feel comfortable with that. If someone did get hurt it would still be in the village park, he said, and Altomare agreed.

Buchanan called it a Catch 22.

“As long as the channels are a detriment we should close it … but it’s important to the village,” she said.

Councilman Mark Gardner said, “But if we do close it, ODNR will see urgency.” Altomare pointed out that you can close the gate but children can still get over it.

In other business, after a lengthy discussion, council voted 5-1, with Councilman Kevin Siembida voting no, to move ahead with a road salt contract for a 200-ton allotment at $102.70 per ton.

Village Administrator Gary Phillips said a 200-ton allotment obligated the village to purchase a minimum of 180 tons.

“Even if we only use 100 tons,” Phillips explained, “we’re obligated to 180 tons.”