Posted: Saturday, October 11, 2014 11:39 pm
By CARRIE STAMBAUGH For The Independent
ASHLAND A year after public wrangling over whether state or federal environmental officials should oversee the cleanup of hazardous waste at AK Steel’s now defunct Ashland Coke Plant, some progress has been made to do so.
It took nearly three years after the plants closure for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to approve AK Steel’s plan for determining the extent of contamination from a leaking “swimming pool” of hazardous decanter tank tar sludge. A cocktail of chemicals known to “pose a substantial hazard to human health or the environment,” the sludge was used in the coke making process.
Investigators from the EPA’s National Enforcement Investigation Center and the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection spotted the leak during a four-day inspection of the 138-acre facility in spring 2010. It has since promoted enforcement action by the EPA under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and launched a civil investigation by the Department of Justice.
The plant first opened in the 1920s, under the Semet-Solvay Corporation name. AK Steel, then Armco Steel Corporation, purchased it in 1980. That same year, the company made its first filing to the EPA and has since been recognized as a “large quantity generator of hazardous waste” and was inspected annually until its closure in June 2011.
The “swimming pool” is an unlined 75-foot by 32-foot earthen concrete impoundment, constructed before 1980. It is located 55 feet from the Ohio River, which provides drinking water to more than 3 million. The 340 cubic foot capacity was increased during the plant’s operation by additional three- to four-foot-high cinder block and gravel walls.
During subsequent visits over the next two years, which are detailed in a September 2012 administrative order issued to AK officials, investigators found numerous instances of sludge being tracked beyond the containment area. It was spotted seeping from the pool’s edges, dripping from hoses; investigators noted its characteristic “dark staining” at groundwater testing sites and in soil samples taken in areas between the pool and the river. Testing confirmed the presence of hazardous chemicals in the sampling.
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.
The EPA has determined the waste may pose a threat to workers, residents and wildlife in the area as well as those downstream and in surrounding areas. The hazardous waste could be spread by a variety of pathways including contaminated soil being blown, tracked or transported off site by wind, water and humans.
EPA Region 4 spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young said Friday the agency approved AK’s Sampling and Analysis Plan in May, and it was implemented in June and July. “It covered the first phase of what could be multiple sampling events,” she added. The SAP will help “to ascertain the nature and extent of” the hazard posed by the site.
AK Steel spokesman Barry Racey said AK Steel is working to clean up the site and has spent $1.5 million to make the property “more suitable for redevelopment.”
“Demolition of structures has been completed. In addition, various materials at the plant were removed and sent off-site for recycle, reuse or proper disposal,” Racey wrote in response to an email inquiry.
Ashland Economic Development Director Chris Pullem said he expects it will take a decade before the coke plant site can be again used to generate good-paying jobs in Ashland.
“I know there is a lot of paperwork going back and forth, but nothing has been cleaned up at this point,” Pullem said of his knowledge of cleanup efforts at the plant. He added, “None of us thought for a second this was going to be a quick turnaround. If we could get that up and going with several new projects in the next decade that is a big win for us.
“AK has become a little more aggressive regarding the marketability of that plant,” he said. “They would like to get it ready to go to market, allowing us to bring another company to that ground and (them) get out from underneath it.”
“It is AK Steel’s desire that the property be utilized for another job-producing business or industry as soon as possible,” said Racey. “We believe that the property is in an excellent location for industrial redevelopment, given its proximity to the Ohio River, railroad and interstate highway access. Racey said a number of interested parties have inquired about the property, and are now being evaluated by the company.