Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

August 23, 2013

Ashland city officials discuss AK Steel cleanup

Carrie Stambaugh
CNHI News Service

ASHLAND — Ashland officials added their voices this week to a growing chorus pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to allow the state to take the regulatory lead on the environmental cleanup of AK Steel’s Ashland Coke Plant.

On Thursday, Ashland City Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution urging the action in an effort to hasten the cleanup and open the property to economic redevelopment. There has been some interest by an unnamed company in purchasing the site, but the ongoing environmental enforcement actions by the EPA against AK Steel  have derailed those plans for now.

The move came a day after announcement of a settlement between the company and state and federal regulators to resolve years of violations of air pollution laws at the now-defunct facility. In addition to paying a $1.65 million civil penalty to the U.S. government, AK Steel will pay Kentucky $25,000 and invest approximately $2 million in projects at the Ashland West Works to further improve air emissions at the site.

The settlement resolves 35 notice of violations issued by the EPA and Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection from 2005 to 2010 involving issues of  “opacity and fugitive emissions” from the plant.  DEP Commissioner Bruce Scott said in a release detailing the agreement, “It is our hope that the AK coke facility will be developed for future job creation. In addition, we chose to further invest in and help the local community by using Kentucky’s portion of the assessed penalty dollars to make improvements at the adjacent AK Steel Works facility.”

AK spokesman Mike Wallner declined to elaborate on the projects or when they might take place. “We don’t have any updates,” he said.

Thursday’s action by city officials also followed a meeting Wednesday with local AK Steel managers at the coke plant site, which Commissioner Larry Brown described as “very informative and enlightening.”

Cleanup of the site could still be months or years away, however, regardless of which agency oversees the work. AK Steel is in the midst of complying with an order for the EPA to address hazardous waste contamination at the site.

According to an order issued to AK Steel last September, state and federal environmental officials have documented numerous incidents of contamination of soil and water on the site by tar sludge. The sludge is classified as a hazardous waste because it contains a variety of heavy metals and toxic compounds including some known carcinogens.

AK was ordered to develop and submit a sampling and analysis plan to determine the extent of the contamination. A second version of that plan is now under review by the EPA after the original version was rejected because of “deficiencies.” The Department of Justice also continues to have an ongoing investigation into the hazardous waste management at the site, said spokeswoman Wyn Hornbuckle.

EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young confirmed the document was under review Wednesday but could not provide a timeline for cleanup. “It does determine the extent of the pollution. It is not a plan to actually address the cleanup. The SAP has to take place first, before you can come up with a plan to address it,” she said.

Harris-Young said AK Steel and EPA officials are in the “typical talks” that go on between the two entities under a regulatory order. “There is not a time constraint. These things typically take as long as they need to take. Some go shorter, some go longer. That is just part of the process,”she said.

But city and economic development officials who are concerned over replacing the more than 350 direct and indirect jobs lost when the coke plant closed, as well as the thousands of utility and tax dollars the plant generated, have a different opinion. “The most important thing to us is No. 1 to get the site clean, but get it clean in the quickest manner to get industry and employment back,” said Ashland Alliance President Bill Hannah.  He said the Alliance would continue to push for the state to take the lead, through whatever channels are available.

Hannah said he believes the Kentucky Energy Environment Cabinet, which isn’t facing the federal sequestration financial pinch and doesn’t have the same size work load as the EPA, could move things along faster. The EPA would maintain an oversight role.

“It’s very important as the city where the city lies that we throw our support behind it,” agreed Economic Development Director Chris Pullem. “What it can possibly do is shrink the amount of time of long term monitoring for the site ... it allows them to get the site back on the market a little bit quicker. I think they realize there is really no way to get out of cleaning it up now, so in order to get your return on your investment for the cleanup, the quicker you get it on the market the better,” said Pullem.

Pullem said he believes the city has opened a new dialogue with AK officials. In the past, he said, there has been a noticeable “disconnect” between the company and the city. The new AK Steel West Works plant manager, Dan Brown, Pullem said is “looking for ways to get involved with the community.”  

“We really challenged them to come up with ideas for how we can help them to become more competitive,” said Pullem. “Down the road, they are going to come to some decisions on making some investments in that plant. That is not a secret. How we can make them more competitive is providing them better service through their plan. I will assure you the one message we left with is they are committed to a long term life of business here in our area,” said Pullem.

Wallner declined to comment on these developments as well. In a previously released statement he 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 US EPA’s consideration of the Commonwealth’s proposal to transfer oversight authority in this matter to Kentucky.”

CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at (606) 326-2653 or by cstambaugh@dailyindependent.com