Sunday, April 4, 2004

In Middletown, AK Steel striving to clear the air

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Soot particles from AK Steel's plant cover his pickup and scratch the paint, Ray Agee says.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG

MIDDLETOWN - On a double lot with shade trees, a garden and a recreational vehicle out back, the Omaha Street house of Ray Agee looks straight out of a scene from the clean countryside.

It isn't.

In the morning, Agee ventures outside and sees the nightly deposit of metallic particles from the AK Steel operations a few blocks away. A layer of soot covers his porch, his truck, a picnic table and the vinyl panels on his house. He has washed the metal shards from his truck so many times the roof is worn down to the gray primer.

"If you try to wash it off by hand, it just scratches your paint all to pieces," said Agee, a 62-year-old retired truck driver.

Agee's observations are shared by other residents of Middletown's Oneida neighborhood, a blue-collar section separated from the AK installation by a chain-link fence and a thin line of trees. The plant's seemingly constant roar and the cacophony of machines, trains, trucks and heavy equipment serve as a reminder of life with a steel plant. But the daily dose of metallic soot, residents say, is unbearable.

For years, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency argued that the fallout was a "nuisance" in violation of clean air laws. AK denied it. As the number of citizen complaints between 1998 and 2004 climbed toward the 500 mark, the dispute between the steel maker and regulators plodded through the courts.

On Thursday, they declared an end to the war.

AK agreed to spend $66 million on pollution-control equipment that will lower emissions to meet federal rules taking effect in 2006. The company agreed to pay a $1.7 million fine, most of which will be forgiven if pollution controls are installed on the blast furnace 13 months from now. It agreed to establish a 30-foot-wide buffer of 225 trees along its border with Oneida and the company said it will wash soot-covered homes and vehicles until the controls kick in.

In return, Ohio EPA agreed to drop its lawsuit. The agency said AK's proposed measures will lower pollution output by 800 tons a year, or 56 percent. Gov. Bob Taft endorsed the deal.

"This facility provides good jobs in the area and as a result of the new pollution controls, neighbors will also enjoy cleaner air," Taft said.

Long history

What rubber is to Akron, steel is to Middletown. The town's steel heritage dates back to 1901, when AK's forebear, the American Rolling Mill Co., began production and became a global supplier of steel. By 1961, the company had more than 50,000 employees in 139 countries, 8,000 in Middletown. As Armco's fortunes went, so did Middletown's. An ownership change in 1994 rechristened the company as AK Steel.

For most of the company's existence, the discharge of smoke and soot went hand-in-hand with steel production and the jobs it created. Public opinion and federal legislation, though, eventually tilted against pollution. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, the same year the Nixon administration created the Environmental Protection Agency.

AK Steel, meanwhile, was expanding. In the 1960s and 1970s, it built a new furnace to turn iron into steel and, to help fuel it, two new batteries of ovens to turn coal into hotter-burning coke.

The expansion represented an affirmation of Middletown's steel-based economy but also was a dirty, noisy eyesore to the residents of Oneida.

Agee, who can see the AK plant over the treetops from his back yard, grew up in Oneida. The land occupied by AK's rust red coke plant, he said, used to be a field.

"I could go to the end of the street and walk straight over (the AK property) to Highland Street, and nothing was there," Agee said.

"I did not move in next to Armco; they moved in next to me," he said.

Under the tougher air pollution rules of the late 1970s, AK was forced to eliminate the problem of "fugitive" emissions, that is, those not emanating from smokestacks and other controlled release points. At steel plants, "fugitives" typically consist of dust, soot, iron oxide and silvery graphite "kish" escaping from buildings, receptacles and grounds.

AK and the Ohio EPA, which enforces federal air quality laws, reached an agreement in 1981 to rein in fugitive emissions. In exchange for a break from conventional controls, AK proposed alternative emission-abatement measures to achieve the same goals. The state and U.S. EPA went along. Today, AK says it has reduced annual dust emissions by eight times what federal rules dictated.

But residents of the neighborhoods that sandwich AK - Oneida and Mayfield - question the claims. In hundreds of complaints filed with the Ohio EPA during the past decade, residents say particles escaping from the AK plant tarnish their siding and enter their homes. Patio dining, they say, is out of the question because particles fall onto uncovered food.

"I started noticing it seven years ago," said Paul Webb, a retired car insulation worker who lives on Lamberton Street in Mayfield. "I thought it was just dust at first, but then you'd notice that you'd wash your car one day, and it was filthy the next," said Webb, 69.

James Cottle, 62, lived on Omaha Street in Oneida for 29 years before moving to the Middletown outskirts in October 2002. He said he regularly washed his house and replaced his carpeting during an unsuccessful campaign against the grit.

"I used pure Clorox and rubber gloves and a scrub brush, and it wouldn't come off because it had imbedded itself into the vinyl siding," Cottle said.

Ashly Laytham and a friend were playing at a park in October 2002 when an afternoon rainstorm chased them to her mother's house on Navajo Street. Inside, Laytham - 15 at the time - said they "felt stuff on our arms" and a burning sensation in their eyes. Her mother, Tracy Beckman, said she tried to rinse their eyes with eye drops and placed wet washcloths on their eyes for three hours to relieve the discomfort.

Beckman said she called AK to complain. Two months later, just days before Christmas, she said AK wrote her a check for $1,000.

"It was a rainstorm of metal," Laytham said. "I'm not kidding you. It was pouring it."

Redefining air pollution

In 1982, Ohio saw fit to define nuisance air pollution. The resulting law forbids the emission of "smoke, ashes, dust, dirt, grime, acids, fumes, gases, vapors, odors or any other substances" in such a way or in such an amount as to "endanger the health, safety or welfare of the public, or cause unreasonable injury or damage to property." The cost of breaking that law? Up to $25,000 per day.

Going by the state's definition, AK spokesman Alan McCoy said the company is no nuisance. He said AK goes to considerable lengths to control fugitive emissions and abide by clean air statutes. AK says it has spent more than $60 million for environmental controls and projects in Middletown in the past 15 years and spends more than $12 million a year to maintain air pollution control equipment.

"It is our policy to operate within the applicable environmental regulations, and I believe we do a very good job of it," McCoy said. "Does it mean that dust will never cross the fence line? No. But to suggest that we don't care or don't want to reduce our emissions or don't want to comply is not accurate whatsoever."

Since Jan. 1, 1998, 37 Oneida residents filed formal complaints with Hamilton County's Department of Environmental Services over the nightly soot deposits. The agency monitors Middletown's air quality and investigates air pollution complaints for the Ohio EPA. In the past six years, it has received more than 430 complaints about AK's emissions, 182 from Ray Agee.

After receiving a complaint in July 2002 from Danny Buchanan, whose home on Ottawa Street backs up to the AK property, environmental compliance specialist Mike Ploetz visited the home.

"He (Buchanan) asked me to step into his back yard to see the fallout in his cabbages," Ploetz said. "While I was standing in his driveway, I could feel it landing on the hair of my arms. The stuff in the cabbage you could pick up with a spoon."

But did it harm Buchanan's health, safety or welfare or cause unreasonable injury or damage to his property? Buchanan said he doesn't eat his cabbages and reported no ill health effects from the air. His house catches a lot of the soot, but appears no worse for wear.

McCoy would not respond to individual complaints. He did, however, confirm that AK has paid to wash the cars and homes of people who have complained to AK.

Whether the airborne soot constitutes a health threat is unclear.

Air-quality testing stations near AK, operated by Hamilton County Environmental Services, show no excessive readings of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide or particulate matter. The Middletown Health Department has not studied the effects of air pollution on residents, nor has the Ohio Health Department or EPA. The soot from the AK plant, depending on the day, consists of iron oxide, limestone, quartz, graphite, coke, slag, scale and kish, according to reports filed by Hamilton County inspectors.

Agee worries about the cumulative effect on Oneida residents. One day in 1998, he said, he fell asleep on his couch with the windows and doors open. He woke up coughing "black stuff" and said his glass-topped coffee table was so sooty he "couldn't see through it." But Agee admits he is no portrait of good health. He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.

"The main thing is for the rest of the people here, the children in particular," said Agee. "My stance is, the law says you have to provide a healthy environment to live in. You can't do that in Middletown. The children have no defense, and most parents can't afford to leave or stand up to AK."

The settlement between AK and the Ohio EPA is expected to go a long way in addressing those concerns. Beth Ellis, a spokeswoman for a Cincinnati nonprofit group called Environmental Community Organization, said she is guardedly optimistic.

"As long as AK Steel follows through on their promises," she said, "in the long run there can be little doubt that this is a huge victory for Middletown residents."


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