Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

August 20, 2013

Positive sign

Demolition of the coke plant removes a reminder of past

The Independent

ASHLAND — In a matter of minutes shortly after 9 a.m. Sunday, the AK Steel Coke Plant, which under various names and owners had provided good-paying industrial jobs in this community for more than 90 years before it closed in 2011, was reduced to rubble.

In a series of implosions, the conveyor belt linking two tall concrete coal bunkers first fell to the ground. Then, the buildings themselves collapsed. Two smokestacks flanking the buildings then fell in rapid succession. A large cloud of dust hung over the site following the implosions, but it dissipated quickly, helped along by the steady rainfall.

While there is a certain sadness watching the destruction of an industrial plant that enabled so many workers to put food on the tables of their families for so many years, we see much that is positive in the demolition of the old plant. As long as the tall smokestacks stood on the coke plant property along the banks of the Ohio River on Winchester Avenue, they were a constant reminder of a past that is no more.

For Ashland, the closed coke plant was a grim reminder of a brighter industrial past much like the closed Portland Cement plant was for so many years  across the Ohio River in Ironton. We find little positive in such reminders

Much work needs to be done before the old coke plant property can be ready for new development. Significant environmental issues at the site have prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as enforcement actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Federal regulators also have said the issues are so serious they are unwilling to relinquish oversight of the cleanup to state agencies, despite mounting pressure to do so.

Sunday’s demolitions were the latest step in the piece-by-piece dismantling of the coke plant, which AK Steel closed because of environmental concerns and increased maintenance costs. Simply put, the 92-year-old plant could not compete with more modern coke plants like the one across the Ohio River in Haverhill, Ohio. That plant is cleaner and much more efficient than the Ashland coke plant ever was or ever could be.

AK Steel said the closing of the coke plant resulted in a net loss of 25 jobs, but that is a bit misleading.  The plant employed 263 hourly and salaried workers at the time the closing was announced. One-hundred-seventy hourly and all salaried workers at the plant were transferred to AK Steel’s Ashland Works steel-making facility. Sixty coke plant workers took retirement after the closing was announced.

However, AK Steel does not count the number of contract workers who worked in and around the coke plant but were never considered AK Steel employees. All those jobs disappeared.

The city of Ashland also lost its biggest water customer when the coke plant closed  and about $500,000 a year in payroll taxes. While our air is cleaner and Ashland may be a bit healthier place to live since the coke plant’s shut down, its demise continues to have a negative impact on our economy that extends beyond 25 jobs.

No amount of pressure from our elected leaders — not U.S. Sen. Mich McConnell and Rand Paul, U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers and Thomas Massie and even Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat — is going to change  the determination of the Democrat-appointed leaders of the EPA to not relinquish oversight of the coke plant’s cleanup to Kentucky environmental officials. That being the case, local leaders would be wise to work closely with the U.S. EPA and with AK Steel in seeing that the clean up is done as quickly as possible. Until it is, there will be a large piece of undeveloped and unused industrial property in the heart of Ashland.

While it may take years to find a new use for the coke plant’s property, we have to look no further than Portsmouth to find a ray of hope for a brighter future. For many years, a closed coke plant on U.S. 52 in Portsmouth and South Boston, Ohio, was an eyesore that served as an ugly reminder of a more prosperous past. But political and economic development leaders in southern Ohio persevered in their efforts to find a new life for the property. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but today a Walmart supercenter serves as the anchor for a large and bustling commercial shopping center on the old coke plant property.

We’re not saying the same thing will happen at the site of Ashland’s old coke plant. Indeed, because of the railroad, we are not sure the Ashland coke plant site is really best suited for commercial development, but the railroad, the river, good highways and the availability of more than 100 acres of undeveloped land certainly make it ideal for industrial development. Instead of lamenting the demise of the coke plant, local leaders need to persevere in their efforts to find a new use for the coke plant property. While much more needs to be done to make that possible, the leveling of the old plant is a huge step in the right direction. No longer will we look at the property and see the remains of a prosperous past, but we will see a hope for a better future.