News: Gutter Fight

Environmentalists say steel company's discharges are hazardous

May 23, 2002 at 2:06 pm
David Wasinger

Towering inferno: Flame from an AK Steel smokestack pierces the Middletown night.

Adjacent to AK Steel is a neighborhood Middletown residents call "The Reservation." The nickname comes from streets named for conquered Native American peoples — Omaha, Navaho, etc. Some residents feel they, too, have been part of a losing battle.

Nancy and James Cottle bought their house on Omaha Street almost three decades ago, when the steel company was named Armco. They blame discharges from the steel plant for damage to their carpet and cars, and they fear the effects it might have on their health.

"We have lived here for 27 years," James Cottle says. "I have fought Armco since day one. If they don't stop this pollution, if I live to be 100 years old, I'll still be complaining about it."

The Sierra Club and Ohio Citizen Action have started organizing residents for a campaign targeting pollution by AK Steel. The environmental groups recently sent reporters small plastic bags containing grit collected from the gutters on Ray Agee's house on Navaho Street.

The sooty particulate matter isn't the typical stuff of storm gutters, according to Susan Knight, water project director for the Sierra Club.

She says the waste contains byproducts of steel production, many of which are heavy metals.

"If you put a strong magnet on that bag, it'll pick it up," she says.

She's right.

Don't look, don't tell
Alan McCoy, vice president of public affairs for AK Steel, says he hasn't seen what was collected from the gutters. Knight, Nancy Cottle and other activists and neighbors tried to share their collection, taking an estimated 150 pounds to the corporation's annual shareholder meeting in Delaware last week. But security personnel blocked their entry.

"We have published rules for entry and no one is allowed to take a bucket of dirt into our annual meeting," McCoy says.

Nancy Cottle says they were simply trying to return the company's property.

"It's their dirt," she says. "We're just returning their dirt to them."

Asked to verify the gunk originated in AK Steel's plant, McCoy says he doesn't know.

"I haven't seen the stuff," he says. "I can't tell you."

McCoy says AK Steel is responsive to citizen complaints, but he won't talk about them.

"I'm not going to talk about specific complaints," he says.

The Sierra Club wants to talk about a complaint: The organization says particulate matter in the air near the steel plant can cause cancer. At the shareholder meeting, Chief Executive Officer Dick Wardrop allowed everyone to ask one question. Knight asked him to meet with environmental activists. Wardrop said no.

"He said, 'You have no standing. I do not meet with people who have no standing,' " Knight says.

McCoy confirms the exchange occurred.

"Our point is we're in court right now trying to resolve these issues," he says.

Legal standing is exactly what the Sierra Club wants; the organization has asked a judge to let it join a lawsuit against AK Steel by the federal government. The state of Ohio has already joined the suit — filed by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — accusing AK Steel of more than 200 violations of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

"These violations go back over a decade and the state of Ohio has to feel pretty confident to go to court with this," says Andrew Thompson, spokesman for the Ohio EPA.

"We dispute the allegations," McCoy says.

The EPA wants AK Steel to install control measures the company says will soon be obsolete, as well as pay fines. The company has offered to install early versions of a new control method, McCoy says, but the EPA insists on payment of the fines.

"You ought to look at the agencies and ask why they offered to trade better air emissions controls for penalties," he says.

AK Steel asserts it should not have to pay the fines because it did nothing wrong.

"We continue to operate in a lawful manner at the Middletown Works," McCoy says.

Middletown has the cleanest air of 12 monitoring sites across the state operated by the Ohio EPA, according to McCoy.

But Ohio EPA says both McCoy's numbers and his characterization of Middletown's rank are wrong. The agency measures particulate emissions at 75 to 80 sites throughout the state, four of them in Middletown, according to Thompson. Middletown's air was in the middle of the range for 2001.

"It wasn't the worst, it wasn't the best," Thompson says.

An inventory submitted to Ohio EPA by AK Steel for the year 2001 shows the Middletown Works discharged more than 3,800 tons of particulate matter, 4,300 tons of sulfur dioxide, 3,300 tons of nitrogen oxides, 24,000 tons of carbon monoxide and 743 tons of volatile organic compounds.

Dust happens
The Cottles shut their windows at night. If they don't, Nancy Cottle says, the inside of their house turns filthy from soot. When the Cottles had carpeting in their living room, they say, they had to replace it every two years because of discoloration. Their vinyl siding has to be pressure-washed twice a year.

"The window sills are always black," Nancy Cottle says.

In a fruit tree behind the house, leaves are dying. James Cottle rubs his hand across them, then brushes away soot.

"It's like if you would take a handful of sand on it," he says.

McCoy says AK Steel has an outstanding environmental record but admits dust might drift across the plant's fence line, as it does from other sources in the city.

"The nature of state-of-the-art steelmaking in this world does not preclude that from happening anywhere," he says, "The fact is dust drifts off of Yankee Road and Oxford State (Road) and diesel stacks and any number of sources that we all choose to live with."

McCoy says a handful of neighbors make the majority of complaints about the plant.

"There are some that continue to complain and some that complain continually," he says.

The Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services received 53 citizen complaints about AK Steel in 2001, according to Kerri Kahlenberg, permit and enforcement area supervisor. In one case, particles on a truck and house near the plant contained iron, kish and coke. Particles covering another resident's car overnight included coke, iron, unfused fly ash, traces of graphite and sand, Kahlenberg says.

The company complains pollution controls are expensive. Last year McCoy estimated amendments to the Clean Air Act could cost AK Steel $80 million and force it to cut 2,000 of the 3,700 jobs at the Middletown plant.

"We don't have $80 million laying around that we can afford to spend without giving that considerable review," he says.

Meanwhile, the Cottles wonder about the plant's impact on their quality of life.

"But what about us?" Nancy Cottle says. "We have to live with this day in and day out."

Knight argues AK Steel can maintain its profits while still doing what is best for the environment.

James Cottle agrees.

"It will cost them some money to stop this, but they can stop this," he says.

In 2000, AK Steel had operating profits of $338 million, according to Ohio Citizen Action. ©