News: Foul Movement

City cuts a pollution program that works

Jan 8, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Chemical releases at Environmental Enterprises Inc. have raised concern among environmentalists. But now Cincinnati City Council has repealed a law addressing the issue.

A Cincinnati anti-pollution law likely saved the life of an employee at a hazardous waste treatment plant Dec. 11. A week later, city council voted to repeal the law.

The Air Quality Ordinance, Title X of the Cincinnati Municipal Code, was enacted in 1991 to protect the quality of the city's "air resources," in the language of the Office of Environmental Management (OEM).

City council last month eliminated funding for OEM, which was responsible for enforcing Title X.

Perhaps the best proof that the city needs Title X and OEM was the accident that rendered an employee unconscious at Environmental Enterprises Inc. (EEI) in Winton Place. This wasn't the company's first such accident, according to a memo from Dennis Murphey, then director of OEM, to the city solicitor and acting deputy city manager.

"The incident that occurred on Dec. 11, 2002 was strikingly similar to an incident that occurred Dec. 10, 2000 whereby hydrogen sulfide gas was released from the facility's wastewater treatment system," the memo says. "That incident resulted in a hydrogen sulfide released outside the building into the surrounding atmosphere, but fortunately no members of the public were affected."

Dan McCabe, president of EEI, says the smell of the gas might be objectionable, but the amount used dissipates in the air outside and isn't a health threat to the community.

But a high concentration indoors is a problem, according to McCabe.

Three weeks ago an EEI employee collapsed at his workplace. Smelling gas, another employee was walking through the plant to retrieve a portable gas meter when he found his co-worker lying on the ground. He dragged the man to safety and called for emergency help.

'Hold them accountable'
"Had there not been a requirement for the acquisition and use of an on-site portable hydrogen sulfide meter, it's likely the unconscious EEI employee might not have been discovered in time to save his life," Murphey's memo says.

McCabe doesn't dispute the value of the meters but says employees would have gone to check the odor anyway.

"If there's a problem, they check it out," he says.

McCabe says OEM's assessment of EEI's attitude is inaccurate.

"The implication here is that we are thumbing our nose at them," he says.

Prior to the Dec. 11 incident, no employees had ever been injured by hydrogen sulfide gas in the company's 25-year history, according to McCabe.

Murphey's memo says noncompliance with the original orders issued under Title X was a primary cause of the December incident. McCabe disagrees, saying the problem was a mistake in the volume rather than the form the hydrogen sulfide was in.

Even though it was expected that Title X was going to be repealed, OEM and the fire department believed another order should be issued, according to Kathy Clayton, air quality manager with OEM.

"We felt it was very important to hold them accountable because it happened again," she says.

However, if EEI decides to appeal, it will most likely win, because the ordinance they were cited for breaking no longer exists.

The company will do what is needed, McCabe says.

"This company will do what the responsible course of action is, no matter whether the ordinance is in effect or not," he says.

The vote to repeal Title X was unanimous, but Councilwoman Minette Cooper had doubts. She says she voted to repeal the Air Quality Ordinance because of budget constraints but also because she was the only council member who thought Title X important. Holding out would be counterproductive, Cooper says.

The rest of council believed Title X duplicated county efforts, according to Cooper. But the problems the law addressed are still apparent, she says.

"We have big-time smog alerts," she says.

Clayton knows some have criticized OEM.

"The mayor made it clear that he thinks we're ineffective," she says.

However, she believes the agency's efforts have been successful. For example, the Mill Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant was a major source of odors but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency didn't have the authority to deal with it, Clayton says. OEM used Title X to get the plant to install scrubbers to wash the air, which helped reduce offsite odors in Lower Price Hill.

"Now that air is being cleaned and it's not being released out into the neighborhood," Clayton says.

OEM also required the Metropolitan Sewer District, which operates the plant, to establish a citizen advisory panel. Now citizens have a way to express their concerns and connect with the plant's leadership.

"I saw it as we were kind of more of a liaison between the community and industry," Clayton says.

OEM has completed 36 cases using Title X since 1991, according to Clayton.

"It's a very popular program among the citizenry," she says. "I don't think it's a very popular program among the businesses."

Cooper agrees.

"I imagine that there's some businesses that are probably quite pleased that this has been released," she says.

'A definite step backward'
Industry often argues that neighbors who don't like the way a plant smells can move, especially if the plant was there first, Clayton says. Some businesses also believe the problems addressed through Title X are insignificant, she says.

Some businesses complained that air quality controls in Cincinnati are more restrictive than in outlying areas, making it harder to compete with industry that doesn't have to meet the same standards. But Clayton says such controls are especially important in dense urban areas.

"The argument is that you need more control within the city because your population is closer to the businesses," she says. "We all have to live together in the same space, and really the idea behind Title X was a quality of life thing. Most people don't like it when the air stinks."

If the county were to pick up OEM's work, Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services (HCDES) would need to get authority from the Cincinnati Board of Health, according to Clayton.

"In the interim, until that process is in place, any cases that come up will not be addressed," she says.

In the meantime, the only other option would be for the state to enforce the city's air quality standards — and that's not going to happen, according to another memo by Murphey.

"You should know that HCDES has stated that they have no intention of implementing the city's Title X Air Quality Ordinance (which was designed to address citizen air quality concerns and problems not covered by other local, state or federal air regulations)," Murphey wrote.

Ken Edgell, administrative coordinator for HCDES, says the agency will take over a sampling canister program the city had operated. Citizens who complain about odor receive canisters to collect air samples for testing. HCDES will continue the program at least through 2003.

HCDES has always responded to air quality complaints and will continue to do so, Edgell says. But in the past, complaints in the city were turned over to OEM, he says, because the agency could issue fines and penalties under Title X. HCDES has to go through the state of Ohio to issue fines.

"That's why the city process worked so well," Edgell says.

Glen Brand, Midwest regional representative for the Sierra Club, is very concerned about the repeal of Title X.

"It's a definite step backward," he says. "Cutting it is a big mistake."

Air quality in Greater Cincinnati is a major health crisis, according to Brand.

"Asthma and other respiratory problems dominate our area," he says.

Title X was a chance to increase enforcement, and repeal means a tool used for air cleanup is now missing.

In April 2004 the federal government will begin to enforce stronger smog and soot standards, according to Brand.

"Our area will be way out of compliance," he says. "It makes even less sense for us to cut one of the local tools to help clean up the air." ©