News: Coming Clean

Documentary highlights pollution's toll in Middletown

Mar 19, 2003 at 2:06 pm

A human face has finally been put on the problems of air and water pollution in Middletown.

In February 2000 several environmental groups — the Sierra Club, EarthCare, Ohio Citizen Action and Environmental Community Organization — came together to begin filming the documentary AK, Come Clean.

The problems of pollution surrounding AK Steel aren't new, according to Rachel Belz, director of Ohio Citizen Action.

"AK Steel has been polluting the air in and around Middletown for over 30 years," she says.

AK Steel is Middletown's biggest employer and in the past many residents have been wary about coming forward to speak about the company and their health concerns, Belz says.

"Motivation for the project and motivation for the neighbors speaking out were the health concerns," she says. "People are getting sick. We have questions. Neighbors have questions."

One scene in the film depicts residents who traveled to Baltimore to attend the corporation's annual shareholder meeting but were turned away by security when they tried to present a bucket of soot they'd collected from their homes.

Residents say that to date the company hasn't engaged in any dialogue with the community to address their concerns.

The environmental groups say the only compensation paid to residents has been for cars to be re-painted. Metal flakes given off by AK Steel's furnaces scratch car paint, they say.

"Getting a car painted isn't going to take care of health problems," Belz says.

The company also paid a resident to cover a swimming pool made unusable by soot and metal flakes, she says.

The first time Belz went to Middletown she became aware of what residents experience every day.

"You feel the effects quickly," she says. "You're outside for half an hour, 45 minutes and your eyes start burning, your throat starts to feel real scratchy."

The quality of life for people near the steel plant has suffered dramatically because of soot, dust and metal flakes that come from several different furnaces, according to Susan Knight, water quality project director of the Sierra Club.

"What the documentary captures is the real life impact of the pollution," she says.

Particles in the air have a major impact on residents' ordinary activities, she says.

"They say, 'I can't go outside. My grandkids can't come visit me. The fruit on my trees has black stuff in it,' " Knight says.

The air pollution comes from several different sources: coke ovens, a blast furnace and a sinter plant. Water pollution is also a concern; polychlorinated biphenyls have been found in water sources, including Dick's Creek, which flows through residential properties and schools.

In June 2000 the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit against the company, citing more than 200 violations of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation Act (see "Gutter Fight," issue of May 23-29, 2002). The Sierra Club filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit; earlier this year a judge granted the request.

Allan McCoy, spokesman for AK Steel, said he hasn't seen the film.

Barbara Wolf, director of the film, says it bothered her that "there was that much pollution that close to people."

The premiere of AK, Come Clean is at 8 p.m. Saturday at Xavier University's Kelly Auditorium.