Federal environmental officials say the threat of contamination from hazardous waste found at AK Steel’s Ashland Coke Plant is so serious they are not willing to let state officials take the lead on cleanup efforts despite mounting pressure to do so.
In addition to enforcement actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, AK Steel is facing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice about “significant issues” discovered at the plant. DOJ spokeswoman Wyn Hornbuckle confirmed there is an “ongoing civil investigation,” but declined to comment further.
Since May, a cadre of local, state and congressional officials have been pressuring the EPA to transfer enforcement and programmatic oversight of the site’s cleanup to Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet in an effort to expedite the process and open the site up for redevelopment. In addition to letters sent by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Gov. Steve Beshear and EEC Secretary Leonard K. Peters, several other Kentucky officials have written the EPA in the last month to express their desire for a state-led cleanup.
In a letter dated June 19 to then EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe, Peters requested the EPA consider the state’s proposal. Peters said he fears the EPA’s enforcement actions against AK Steel for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act would “result in a lengthier cleanup than would occur under a state-sponsored cleanup.” The RCRA gives the EPA authority over the generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.
Peters said a prospective purchaser of the site has come forward, which creates a “real opportunity to clean up, redevelop and reuse the property.” He assured Perciasepe the goal to quickly redevelop the site “would not discourage the EEC from ensuring the site is characterized and remediated as necessary to protect human health and the environment.” In fact, he said, “the EEC would require the cleanup to be as protective as a cleanup conducted under the RCRA.”
EPA Region 4 Acting Regional Administrator A. Stanley Meiburg laid out the agency’s position against relinquishing control in a letter addressed to Peters, which was dated Aug. 8. In it, Meiburg wrote “the EPA believes that it is critical” to the cleanup process and encouraged the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection to join with the EPA and the DOJ “as partners in addressing the site.”
Meiburg went on to explain where the EPA is in its efforts to work with AK Steel. He said the agency had issued an order to the company to develop and submit a Sampling and Analysis Plan, aimed at characterizing the potential contamination. The first plan was rejected “because of significant deficiencies” and a revised plan is now under review, Meiburg wrote.
He said quick action by AK Steel to assess the site’s contamination would help to speed up the process of determining how to solve the problem. Meiburg said the EPA “is very sensitive to the needs of the local community and strongly supports the expedited redevelopment and reuse of the property.”
Ashland Alliance President Bill Hannah confirmed Friday a potential buyer did visit the site, but has moved on to other projects. He characterized the potential project as a “major manufacturer,” which would build a “significant regional site.”
Hannah said he met with AK Steel, state environmental and economic development officials about the site. With federal furloughs, budget cuts and a “heavy load of work around the country,” Hannah said officials fear the AK site will not be a “priority” to the EPA. “It would be a huge priority for our state if they got involved in it and took the lead on it,” Hannah said.
AK Steel closed the 138-acre plant in June 2011 and has since hired a variety of contracts to dismantle it piece by piece. Several buildings at the facility will be imploded this morning.
The company has released few details about the cleanup and refused last week to comment on the EPA enforcement actions or the DOJ investigation.
In a written statement released by the company Friday, AK Steel spokesman Mike Wallner wrote, “We continue to move forward with our efforts to demolish the coke plant in a safe and responsible manner.” AK closed the plant after nearly 100 years in operation because “it was no longer competitive due to increased maintenance and increased stringent environmental regulations,” Wallner wrote.
“We appreciate the efforts of officials from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, as well as all government officials, in working to expedite redevelopment of the property so it may be used for another job-creating purpose in the Ashland community. We also appreciate the U.S. EPA’s consideration of the commonwealth’s proposal to transfer oversight authority in this matter to Kentucky.”
In November, an AK spokesman said the company had already removed more than 2,000 tons of tars and other materials from tanks and vessels at the site. At that time, it was working with state officials on a plan to examine what waste was at the site and determine how best to dispose of it.
CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at (606) 326-2653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.