Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2014 3:34 pm
By CARRIE STAMBAUGH For The Independent
ASHLAND AK Steel officials say they are cooperating with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order to monitor and analyze soil and groundwater at the former Ashland Coke Plant.
The first set of results from samples taken and analyzed this summer are due to regulators in late December. The results will help determine any ongoing hazard posed by several identified sources of contamination as well as set the agenda for additional cleanup efforts at the now-defunct facility, according to an EPA spokeswoman.
AK Steel has repeatedly ignored requests for interviews, instead responding with short emails from Barry Racey, AK Steel’s director of government and public relations. “AK Steel is fully cooperating with the U.S. EPA to complete the sampling and analysis plan per the established timetable,” Racey wrote in response to an October request.
Racey has previously stated the company has spent more than $1.5 million cleaning up the property including disposing correctly of hazardous waste materials. AK Steel, he said, is interested in properly closing the facility so it can be sold and redeveloped.
One of the biggest areas of concern to regulators, and a main area of concentration for the upcoming sampling and analysis report, is the recycling area of the plant where an in-ground concrete structure known as “the swimming pool” was located. The “swimming pool” was used to store toxic decanter tar sludge, before it was mixed with coal and reintroduced into the coke ovens.
More than a dozen hazardous chemicals are contained in the sludge, which “may pose a substantial hazard to human health or the environment” including: arsenic, barium, benzene, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, MTBE, naphthalene and a group of more than seven chemicals known as PAHs or polyaromatic hydrocarbons. Exposure can cause a wide range of human illnesses from cancers to neurological disorders.
Originally built as a public swimming pool, it was used by Ashland residents in the 1950s before the property was developed into the coke plant. According to documents prepared by Kemron Environmental Services, on behalf of AK Steel, the 32-foot concrete structure was retrofitted between 1978 and 1980 with thicker concrete walls. A steel plate was later installed on one end to protect the concrete from the bucket of an excavator, which was used to scoop out the sludge as part of the recycling process.
Investigators from the EPA’s National Enforcement Investigation Center and the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection spotted numerous leaks around the swimming pool during a four-day inspection of the 138-acre facility in spring 2010. They subsequently documented numerous instances of the sludge being tracked beyond the recycling area, and found evidence of the hazardous chemicals and heavy metals in soil and groundwater samples taken at other locations on the plant property, including near a production well and in the facility’s storm water collection basin.
The EPA began working with AK officials in 2012 to develop the sampling and analysis plan, but did not come to an agreement until mid-2014. AK Steel submitted at least two proposals, which were rejected by regulators, before the current plan was conditionally approved.
The disagreements — ranging from disputes over the geology of the area as well as the number of wells needed to accurately monitor the property — extend the original six-month deadline to develop the plan to more than 18 months. During that time, however, AK officials moved to close and cleanup the swimming pool and surrounding recycling area, as well as the collection sump and storm water containment areas.
Approximately seven cubic yards of soil was removed from the area on the south side of the swimming pool wall, where the EPA documented eight “small soil stain points.” According to the revised Sampling and Analysis Plan, provided by the EPA, “The leaks were associated with seepage of accumulated rain water runoff through mortar joints at the top of the poured concrete swimming pool wall and the first course of cinder block which extends the wall further above grade.”
According to Racey, the concrete recycling area” was permanently closed in 2012 and “all the material in it was removed and properly recycled off-site.” “The concrete recycling area was cleaned, clean fill was added, and a concrete cap installed,” he wrote. Kemrom laboratory tests conducted on rinseate samples from the pool after the closure and cleaning showed only concentrations of naphthalene above laboratory reporting limits.
The recycle area concrete pad and sump were subsequently closed in October 2013. They too were cleaned, and test results showed concentrations below reportable limits, according to the report submitted to the EPA.
Finally, this summer workers installed three new groundwater-monitoring wells on the property and took more than two dozen soil samples in and around four targeted areas on the plant. The results of those sampling events are what is due to EPA officials in December.
According to EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young, depending on the results, this summers round of tests may be the first of multiple sampling events.
EPA officials are primarily concerned with contaminates polluting local soil as well as penetrating the region’s vast aquifer, located only 30 to 65 feet below the surface. The aquifer flows into the Ohio River — a primary source of drinking water for more than three million Americans.
This is not the first time AK Steel has been ordered by environmental officials to install groundwater-monitoring wells and take soil samples.
In 1997, an order by the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection required the company to install 12 wells and implement a groundwater-monitoring plan. For two years samples were taken quarterly. A 2000 KDEP report concluded, “There does not appear to be any negative impact on groundwater from the operations at AK Steel Coke Plant.” Monitoring continued annually for the next decade with no contamination reported.
In 2008 AK Steel was granted permission by the DEP to discontinue sampling and close the wells.