Area’s worst polluter locks out workers for holiday season

(Photo by Damon Krane)

By Damon Krane
February 2007
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)


If you’ve ever driven Ohio Route 7 between Athens and Marietta, you’ve probably encountered industrial odors so intense that you’ve rolled up your vehicle’s windows or shut off its heater/air conditioner in an attempt to escape the noxious fumes.

A 2005 study by the Associate Press suggests you’re not being overly sensitive. Based on data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Census Bureau, the AP reported the area you’ve been traveling through –- Washington County, Ohio –- contains industrial air pollution that poses greater potential risks to human health than that of any other county in the United States.

Coming in at second place, just across the Ohio River from Washington County is Wood County, West Virginia.

Although these “potential” risks include proven health hazards, the EPA risk assessments on which the study was partially based “aren’t meant to calculate a citizen’s precise odds of getting sick but rather to help compare communities and identify those in need of further attention,” the AP stated.

Of the more than 20 industrial plants clustered along this stretch of the Ohio River, a French-owned metal refinery, Eramet Marietta Inc., is the single worst polluter in Washington Counry and hence in the US.

According to the EPA, Eramet’s plant releases over 5 million pounds of toxins each year, including lead, chromium, and 4 million pounds of manganese, a heavy metal capable of causing damage to the brain and nervous system.

Eramet has become a key target of the statet largest environmental advocacy group, Ohio Citizen Action, and a group of concerned Marietta residents, Neighbors for Clean Air. These groups suspect pollution from Eramet is responsible for some residents’ reported health problems, such as chronic headaches, nausea and nosebleeds. Dick Wittenberg, a biologist and Director of the Mid Ohio Valley Health Department, told the AP he suspects the pollution explains why Marietta children scored far worse than their counterparts here in Athens on a battery of academic and physical tests conducted in the late 90s.

Environmentalists and public health advocates, however, aren’t the only ones upset with how Eramet does business. If you’ve driven Past the plant during the past four months, you’ve noticed something besides the smell. Members of United Steel Workers Local 1-00639, which represents 265 Eramet workers, have been picketing the plant’s entrance since the workers were locked out of their jobs over four months ago. On August 26, 2006, the workers voted down a proposed new contract from Eramet’s management that included substantial cutbacks to employees’ healthcare and retirement benefits. A second company proposal was voted down on December 7.

According to The Marietta Times, “The company’s offer calls for freezing pension plans, leaving employees the option of enrolling in a modified benefit plan of $30 pet month for each year of service (plus what the worker has accumulated through the end of 2006), or workers can opt into a 401(k) plan with a dollar for dollar match, up to 5 percent.”

Union President Jim Deems said the proposal would also raise current employees’ out-of-pocket medical expenses by up to 85 percent. A spokesperson for Eramet described this as the company’s “last, best and final offer.” Eramet officials still insist on calling the dispute a “strike.” However, on October 26 the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services officially declared it a “lockout” because union workers’ had offered to continue working under the terms of their old contract while negotiations continued.

Eramet refused this offer. “We didn’t want to continue operating under the old contract, because it was our objective to make changes in that contract,” Eramet Human Resources Director Jerry Jenkins told The Marietta Times.

As a result of the ODJFS ruling, union workers can now collect unemployment compensation, and Eramet cannot hire permanent replacement workers. However, the plant continues to operate with its non-union salaried employees and newly hired temporary workers.

Steelworkers willing to give, but not so much

(Photo by Damon Krane)

Standing on the picket line more than 100 days into the lockout, Andy Makris, a Furnace Operator at Eramet for 19 years, said he is willing to grant the company some concessions. Given the steadily rising cost of healthcare, Makris said some reductions to health insurance benefits are to be expected, and he believes it is inevitable that pensions will eventually be phased out for newer employees. But for workers like him, who’ve spent decades of their lives working under the assumption that their retirement would be taken care of, the proposed cutbacks to their pensions are too much to bear.

“The pay and insurance we can understand to a point, but when it comes to the pensions – that’s what we’re all working for is the pensions,” said Makris. “When you’ve got 20 years in and all of the sudden they pull the plug on you, that’s not right.”

Makris said younger workers have an easier time quitting and looking for a better job elsewhere, “but when you’re getting close to retirement it’s hard to shift gears and go somewhere else.”

According to the Marietta Tirnes, the average age of locked out workers is 50. Roughly a quarter of them are within a few years of retirement.

Eramet officials argue that concessions of this magnitude are necessary to ensure the plant’s long-term viability, but the workers disagree. Steve Tompkins, the Vice President of USW Local 1-00639 and an electrician at Eramet for 33 years, said the union already granted Eramet $10 million worth of concessions in recent years at a time when the company’s profits were down.

“Since then they’ve made record profits, and they want another $10 million in concessions,” Tompkins said.

Back at the offices of Ohio Citizen Action, Ruth Breech, who heads up the group’s Eramet campaign, is convinced the company has the resources to do better for its workers while also reducing its toxic emissions for the sake of the entire community. Breech said OCA analyzed Eramet’s financial records before launching its campaign to pressure the company to clean up its act.

“Eramet did have some plummeting profits in 2000 and 2001,” said Breech. “But since then they’ve been on an incredible upward trend, with them even making record profits in 2004. So we think they’re capable of making these investments.”

Breech’s organization claims Eramet operates two similar plants in Norway which together emit approximately one tenth the pollution of the company’s Marietta plant.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these companies look at southeast Ohio like a Third World country,” said Breech. “They don’t want to pay the labor costs. They don’t want to improve the environmental stuff. They don’t want to pay the money it takes to run a good business.”

“Locking workers out for the holidays says a lot about the corporate culture at Eramet,” she said. “It says something about how willing they are to work with their employees and other community members.”

Public health activists push on

(Photo by Damon Krane)

While Eramet rebuffs the union’s offer to enter further contract talks, the company’s management has repeatedly refused to meet with Ohio Citizen Action and Neighbors for Clean Air. In July, Human Resources Manager and frequent company spokesperson Ethan Frank-Collins told The Marietta Times Eramet had no plans to meet with the environmental groups because they had been making false statements about the company,
and because most of the letters from group members Eramet received had come from outside Marietta.

In response, Breech contended that OCA’s claims are backed up by verifiable research and that the number of letters from outside Marietta demonstrates her organization’s ability to enable concerned citizens from across Ohio to support one another.

“I’m sure it frustrates [Eramet management] that we’re talking with people in Cincinnati about what they’re doing in Marietta,” she added.

Breech also suggested that Eramet is listening to people from much further away than Toledo.

“We think France is calling the shots,” she said, referring to the company’s international headquarters in Paris.

As a result, Breech said OCA has begun advising its members to write letters to Eramet International CEO Jacques Bacardats, as well as to the head of its Marietta operation, Russ Craig.

Despite the amount and type of toxins emitted by Eramet, no one disputes that the Marietta plant is in compliance with the EPA. Instead, Breech claims that as North America’s only producer of manganese ferroalloys (used to strengthen steel), Eramet’s attorneys were able to negotiate more lenient standards with the EPA, leaving the plant exempt from numerous regulations.

A 2003 report from the Ohio EPA states that Eramet poses the greatest potential danger to surrounding residents due in part to “the facility being old enough to be exempt from many environmental pollution control regulations.” (The plant has operated under differing ownership since 1951.)

Besides Eramet’s numerous regulatory exemptions, another obstacle facing public health advocates is an overall lack of research on the health effects of different levels of manganese for sensitive populations, such as young children and the elderly, or the combination of various pollutants. The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department’s Dick Wittenberg has been pushing for more thorough research for years.

Larry Salisbury, the Mayor of a Michigan city that sued US Steel for decades of air pollution, told the Associated Press in December 2005 that he wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate how industrial toxins affect health.

“Sometimes I think the government doesn’t want to know the answers,” Salisbury told the AP. “Once they do, they have a certain liability to enforce.”

The University of Cincinnati recently completed a pilot study of Marietta residents’ exposure to manganese, lead, and chromium. Public health advocates hope the results, which are expected to be published later this month, will compel the government to mount a larger study. But ultimately, Breech wants industrial processes that employ toxic materials to be proven safe before being put into practice, instead of being modified or eliminated only after they’re shown to have harmed people.

“The standard should be guilty until proven innocent,” she said, drawing a parallel to how the Food and Drug Administration is supposed to test products before they reach the market.

“We really push the companies to be preventative, so they’re not like DuPont, which is a great example in Southeast Ohio,” Breech said. “Thirty or forty of fifty years ago, when Dupont started doing research on the Teflon chemicals, had they actually taken that seriously, they would not be in the situation that they are in now.”

Dupont currently faces a $5 billion dollar class action lawsuit, the latest of several lawsuits alleging the company knew for decades that chemicals it used to manufacture the cookware coating Teflon posed serious hazards to public health.

Air and drinking water supplies in West Virginia and Southeast Ohio have been found contaminated with chemicals used to make Teflon at DuPontt plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Among these chemicals is Perfluorooctanic Acid, which last year the EPA declared “a likely human carcinogen.”

With this in mind, Breech said she wants Eramet to modernize old equipment and install more pollution controls.

“Before you’ve exposed another generation or two of children to manganese, do all you can do to prevent this pollution from coming out,” she said.

An alliance between environmentalists and organized labor?

If the United Steel Workers and the environmental groups are both focused on making Eramet a more responsible member of the community, one might expect all of the organizations to be working together.

Ohio Citizen Action has included a statement of support for the locked out workers on its website and continues to post updates on their struggle alongside news of OCA’s own campaign. Most recently the group organized a Christmas toy donation drive for the workers’ families. Similarly, in a September 27 letter to The Marietta Times, Neighbors for Clean Air founder Caroline Beidler publicly implored “this community to come together and support the workers that Eramet has locked out; they, too, are your neighbors.”

However, Marietta still exemplifies the longstanding rift between environmental activists and organized labor. Locked out Eramet workers remain skeptical of the environmentalists’ true intentions.

“We’d certainly like a cleaner environment,” said union vice president Tompkins. “But we’re not sure what [the environmental groups’] agenda is.”

Tompkins said union members have talked with people from OCA and NCA who have tried to assure workers they’re not attempting to shut down the plant, but workers still worry about potential job loss.

“There have been a lot of plant closures in Southeast Ohio – not for environmental reasons,” Tompkins added, “but there’s still that fear among the workforce.”

“For a long time there’s been a misconception that we’re working to shut Eramet down,” said Breech. “‘We’re not here to shut anybody down. We’re working to clean them up.”

Breech admitted “it rook a little while to build some of those relationships [with workers]. But after they started seeing us more on the picket line and in the union hall, things have gotten better.”

In trying to assuage workers concerns, Breech said part of her job is showing them examples of other companies in Ohio her organization has successfully pressured to reduce pollution without shutting down. She said OCA is also distributing health questionnaires to the workers to find out what problems they may be dealing with.

Whether Eramet workers can trust Ohio Citizen Action or Neighbors for Clean Air, Tompkins said he and his co-workers certainly have reason to share the groups’ concerns.

“We’re exposed to [Eramett pollutants] more than anyone else in the community” he said. “‘We’d like a clean and safe environment too.”


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1 Response to Area’s worst polluter locks out workers for holiday season

  1. Pingback: Interview with Former InterActivist Editor Damon Krane | Damon Krane

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