Industrial polluter claims its operations are safe while agencies investigate and activists push for change
By Damon Krane
March 26, 2007
Athens News: Cover story also featuring my photography
Soon after Caroline Beidler moved to the outskirts of Marietta in 1995, she said strong industrial odors began awakening her at night. When she asked her neighbors about the recurring smell, Beidler said they pointed her to a specialty metals refinery located along Ohio Rt. 7, a few miles south of her property. Upon further investigation, area residents discovered that the smell might be the least of their problems.
In December 2005, the Associated Press analyzed government records and found that Washington County, Ohio ranked worst in the United States among counties ‘that had the highest potential health risk from industrial air pollution in 2000.’ Washington County borders Athens County’s eastern edge.
Coming in at second place was Wood County, W.Va., located just across the Ohio River from Washington County.
Of roughly two dozen industrial facilities that line this stretch of the Ohio River, the AP analysis ranked Eramet Marietta – the same plant Beidler and her neighbors were upset about–as not just the worst factory in the area, but the worst in the entire country in terms of “creating the most potential health risk for residents in surrounding communities.”
Officials at Eramet and some within the state and federal EPAs dispute the AP report. Nevertheless, in response to an earlier 2002 petition from then U.S. Sen. Mike Dewine, R-Ohio, the OEPA installed additional air monitors in the area, and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry launched a major study to determine any health risk posed by pollution coming from the sprawling industrial complex Eramet shares with plants owned by Chevron/Phillips, Eveready, American Municipal Power Ohio and Solvay Advanced Polymers.
It likely will take years for the ATSDR to make its recommendations to the OEPA, which will then decide whether to impose any new restrictions on Eramet or other facilities.
Not content to wait for government agencies to act, Beidler is now president of a Marietta-based group called Neighbors for Clean Air, and she sits on the board of Ohio Citizen Action, the state’s largest environmental and community advocacy organization. The two groups have jointly launched a “Good Neighbor Campaign” aimed at compelling Eramet to reduce its toxic emissions. Earlier this month, Beidler and other NCA members traveled to Athens to discuss their campaign with members of the Appalachian Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club.
Plant exempt from many pollution regulations
Eramet’s Marietta facility is part of a larger industrial complex built by Union Carbide in 1951. The Norwegian company Elkem bought the facility in 1978 and then sold it in 1999 to the French-owned multinational Eramet SA. The Marietta plant is currently the only domestic producer of ferromanganese, an alloy used to strengthen steel.
Due to the plant’s age and the uniqueness of its operations, Eramet is exempt from many environmental regulations, said Bruce Weinberg, an air-pollution specialist with the Air Pollution Control Division of the OEPA’s Southeast District office in Logan.
“Unless they modify (equipment and processes), they don’t necessarily subject themselves to new regulation,” he said.
According to Weinberg, the U.S. EPA developed its Maximum Available Control Technology pollution reduction standards mainly by comparing similar facilities. In the absence of comparable facilities to Eramet, he said the EPA “pretty much worked directly with the facility itself to try to establish these emission levels.”
Chief among the concerns of environmental groups is the manganese used to produce Eramet’s specialty alloys. Manganese is a heavy metal capable of causing neurological damage that manifests itself in a Parkinson’s-like disease called “manganism.”
According to the U.S. EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, Eramet emitted 465,500 pounds of manganese compounds into the air in 2004 alone. The vast majority of these were classified as “fugitive emissions,” meaning they did not undergo any kind of filtration process before being released into the atmosphere.
Asked about the clouds of red dust that regularly engulf the plant’s rooftops, Eramet’s environmental manager, Jeffery McKinney, confirmed they are among the fugitive manganese emissions released during Eramet’s casting process.
While the OEPA regulates Eramet’s overall emissions of particulate matter, Weinberg acknowledged that manganese emissions themselves are not regulated.
Tens of thousands living amid heightened levels of manganese
OEPA toxicologist Paul Koval said air monitoring a few miles from Eramet at the Washington County Career Center found levels of manganese compounds exceeding the agency’s “reference concentration” of .05 micrograms per cubic meter. This is the level “below which there is no expectation of a health effect to occur,” explained Koval.
“Being above this level does not guarantee a health effect. It just means you’re out of the ‘all-clear zone,’ and it merits concern,” he said.
According to Stephanie Davis, an epidemiologist working on the current ATSDR study, the area outside of Koval’s “all-clear zone” for manganese may be as large as 18 miles in diameter. An air-dispersion model developed for the agency and based on OEPA air-monitoring data predicts exposure to .05 micrograms or higher for all of Marietta and Devola in Ohio, and Vienna, Williamstown, North Hills and Boaz in West Virginia, Davis said. Furthermore, the model predicts portions of Marietta closest to Eramet are exposed to .5 micrograms –a level 10 times the reference concentration. The combined population of these six communities is 33,368 people, according to the most recent census.
A 2004 report from the ATSDR stated that residents in this area “have reported a variety of symptoms” the residents believe to be associated with air pollution. These include: “headaches, burning eyes, nausea, difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle aches, tremors, sinus problems, bloody noses, a metallic taste in their mouths, a bitter metallic taste in their throats, an ammonia smell, and sore throats.”
The ATSDR study is intended to verify through additional air monitoring whether its predicted exposure levels are accurate. Until this monitoring is complete, the federal agency has classified the public health threat as “indeterminate.”
“I think we do, in a way, take a conservative approach,” said Davis of the ATSDR, which is a division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “We do not want to overstate what we’re finding. So we’re being very cautious about making any statements about whether or not a health concern is there.”
According to Davis, air monitoring will have to be conducted for approximately another year before any determination can be made. Should the agency then judge the exposure level to be of concern, the ATSDR, OEPA or some other public agency would likely follow up with a health-based study, Davis said. If this subsequent study found a significant health concern, it would then be up to the OEPA to decide whether to further regulate the emissions of Eramet or other facilities in the region.
“Until they complete everything, we aren’t sure what needs to be done as far as emissions reduction, if necessary” said Weinberg of the OEPA Logan office.
Charged with protecting public health, the agency could implement new regulations in a number of ways, he said.
“It could be done through an order, where the agency, through the director, would essentially order the company to reduce emissions levels,” said Weinberg. “It could be done as a separate matter, or it could be done through a permit that establishes lower allowable emission rights. There are mechanisms in place to do that.”
Efforts to determine effects of exposure to Eramet’s manganese emissions
Rogr Hall is one of the Marietta residents eagerly awaiting the results of these studies.
“Since the EPA Toxic Release Inventory started being reported in I 989, this plant has released 7,764,500 pounds of manganese particulate matter [into the air],” he told Sierra Club members during the Marietta Neighbors for Clean Air presentation in Athens earlier this month. Hall claimed this equals the weight of 1,652 Fench-made Peugeot automobiles, dispersed into the region’s air.
“We’re breathing it. Our children are breathing it. And it’s possible it’s killing us – we don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully these health studies will tell us.”
On the Wood County side of the Ohio River, Dick Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Department of Health, shares many of Hall’s concerns. In l997,Wittberg conducted a battery of academic and physical tests on a group of 19 fourth-graders from Marietta matched with an equal number of their counterparts in Athens.
“Out of the 13 tests we did, Marietta kids did worse on all of them, and did statistically significantly worse on five of them,” Wittberg reported.
The health department biologist said the academic test results could be related to the different school systems, rather than any physical cause. He was most concerned, however, with the results of physical tests for balance, visual contrast sensitivity and memory, which he said suggest neurological impairment.
Yet, he cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
“What we did proves nothing,” he conceded. “The study was limited in scope, was not subjected to peer review and was conducted by people who could be seen to have biases,” he explained.”But I will also claim that it’s evidence that there could be a problemi” which, according to Wittberg, ought to be enough for “someone who is qualified” to conduct a more rigorous study.
More disconcerting, said Wittberg, is a study published in the September 2006 edition of the journal Science of the Total Environment. The authors of “Motor Alterations Associated With Exposure to Manganese in the Environment in Mexico” reported a statistical association between adverse health effects and exposure to airborne manganese particulates at the level of .l micrograms per cubic meter – much lower than the level at which Wittberg said U.S. agencies expect health effects to occur.
While the ATSDR air-dispersion model predicts more than 33,000 people are exposed to .05 micrograms or above, Stephanie Davis, the epidemiologist working on the ATSDR study, confirmed that the model places all of Marietta, Devola, North Hills, Vienna and Williamstown within an area exposed to at least .1 micrograms, the level at which the Mexican study found an association with health effects.
However, Davis cautioned that the Mexican study has its own problems.
“One of the key issues with the paper is that the exposure models they used themselves are what we call ‘ecologic measures,’” said Davis. “There are huge assumptions made with these models. So even though there is statistical association, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a causal association.”
“Nevertheless,” said Wittberg, “I think [the Mexican study] is the clearest evidence thus
far that people are probably suffering health effects due to this emission. I think it’s moved out of the realm of a possibility and it’s moved into the realm of a probability.”
Eramet officials dismiss health concerns
As one might expect, Eramet officials have a decidedly different take on the situation.
Human Resources Manager Ethan Frank-Collins described the health concerns of Neighbors for Clean Air members as “very overblown,” the federal EPA’s TRI emission figures as “misleadingi,” the 2005 Associated Press report as “false” and the 1997 Wittberg study as not “borne out by future results.”
“We’ve been here for over 50 years,” he said. “We’ve had multiple generations of employees work here, and we haven’t seen the evidence of the health effects that Neighbors for Clean Air are concerned about.”
Frank-Collins acknowledged that manganese exposure is dangerous “at very high levels” but he maintained, “The levels that our employees are around working right here at the plant and the levels that are present outside the facility do not come close to these high levels.”
In determining reference concentration levels for manganese, Eramet Environmental Manager Jeffery McKinney said federal EPA officials “actually build in a very high safety factor.”
“I believe it’s 3,000 times what the ‘no adverse effect’ level was,” he said. “So just because you have some blips above the reference concentration for a few test periods doesn’t necessarily mean you have a concern.”
Of the 2005 AP report, McKinney said, “Even the AP was saying that study showed only the potential health risks associated with industrial pollution. It didn’t look at all at the actual air quality in the area and the actual health of area residents based on monitoring in place and health statistics or any of that.
“This area ranks average or better than average in terms of citizen health and overall air quality,” maintained McKinney.
Frank- Collins added, “Parkersburg-Marietta has been in compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”
According to the OEPAsWeinberg, however, Washington County has only recently met the NAAQS for ozone (pending approval from the federal EPA) and has not attained the standard for fine particulate matter, the category of pollution that includes Eramet’s manganese emissions.
Nonetheless, Weinberg did echo some of the Eramet officials’ criticism of the 2005 AP report.
“(The AP) used a very conservative U.S. EPA model to come to their conclusion,” he said. “There are a number of toxicologists within U.S. EPA and our own agency who do not agree with that determination. They think that the risk has been greatly overstated as a result of some of the assumptions the model makes.”
Among the alleged mistakes in the report, McKinnev of Eramet said, “The Associated Press made tire assumption that all the chromium emissions coming out of this facility were in the hexavalent (VI) form, when in fact none of it is.”
Hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen,which received public attention in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich,” based on the real-life Brockovich’s role in a lawsuit against a company accused of contaminating a California town’s water supply with hexavalent
“We do have a certain amount of the process on the electrolytic side where the solution is hexavalent,” McKinney said. But he stressed, “none of our emissions are hexavalent.”
Frank-Collirn and McKinney also took issue with the federal EPA TRI data upon which the AP report was partially based. According to McKinney, Eramet is responsible for “self-reporting” its emissions to the EPA. Its reports are based on direct measurements of controlled “point source” emissions, as well as calculated estimates of fugitive emissions.
“The emissions are probably over-calculated based upon some worst-case scenarios we assume,” he said. “We always over-report the emissions as opposed to under-report emissions due to our legal liability.”
Cleaner plants in Norway?
McKinney said this “over-reporting” caused by emission regulations in the United States explains much of the diference between the emission figures for Eramet Marietta and two similar plants the company operates in Norway.
Ohio Citizen Action and Neighbors for Clean Air, however, argue that Eramet Marietta has the ability to drastically reduce manganese emissions because, according to the Eramet’s own reports, the Norway plants together emit as little as one-tenth the pollution of the single facility in Marietta. However, McKinney argues, “The basic discrepancy stems from how we are required to report emissions in the U.S., versus how they’re required to report emissions in Norway and in the rest of Europe.”
“We estimate fugitive emissions, whereas Norway reports only what they can physically measure.” he said.
The Athens NEWS was unable to obtain Norway’s pollution reporting requirements for this story. The Mid Ohio Valley Health Department’s Wittberg said he was not aware of whether differences exist in the two countries’ requirements, but stated, “I do know that in (Eramet’s) own internal documents, they refer to Marietta as the dirty plant.”
A difference in design may explain the difference between the plants in Marietta and Norway, according to McKinney.
“I would say Norway has slightly less point source emissions due to the design of the furnaces,” he said. “But there are trade-offs in that. It would not be at all cost effective to tear down our furnaces and build the same furnaces as in Norway. There just isn’t that much of a reduction [in emissions].”
As for health department biologist Wittberg’s 1997 studdy of children from Athens and Marietta, Frank-Collins said, “I’ve seen results from a later time where Marietta scores were higher than Athens scores.”
“If you go to the Ohio scorecard that evaluates the districts in the state in terms of testing, Marietta ranks about average in the state,” said McKinney. “But what was really curious was that the school district closest to us, Warren County, three years straight overall has ranked better than the average in the state.”
McKinney responded with skepticism to Wittberg’s claim that Marietta’s favorable academic results can be attributed to different school systems, whereas the physical tests in which Marietta schildren performed significantly worse cannot.
“[Wittberg] looked at one year and one grade, and anything out of that that would oppose what is implied by the Ohio scorecard… I’m not discounting his study. He did find something,” said McKinney. “But he admits it was limited, and further study needs to be done.”
“I’ve got kids muself,” said Eramet’s Frank-Collins. “And if I thought living in this community was putting my children at risk, I certainly wouldn’t be living here.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve,” he added, citing the emission reductions Eramet has carried out already.
“In terms of our total releases, our emissions have decreased substantially over the past 10-plus years. In fact, our facility here in Marietta has reduced emissions by over 60 percent over the last 10 years or so,” he said.
Activists not comforted by Eramet’s assurances
Beidler and her fellow activists admit Eramet has significantly decreased its emissions, but they are not satisfied with the company’s assurances that current levels are safe.
“We don’t feel that our concerns are over-blown at all,” she said. “And it looks like the scientific community sees enough merit in our concerns to do further health studies. I don’t think that would be happening if we were just crying wolf.”
Nor do members of the environmental and community groups feel Eramt is being adequately responsive to their concerns.
“It would be really helpful if the management of Eramet would sit down with us face to face and try to talk some of this stuff out,” said Beidler.
McKinney said he has met with Beidler in the past, but was instructed to stop after Beidler began “interfering in” a labor dispute between Eramet and nearly 300 of its unionized employees.
“When she kept up with the attacks and the letter-writing, me management said ‘Uh-uh. Don’t do it,’” he said.
Eramet’s union workers were locked out of their jobs from late August 2006 to early February of this year after they refused to sign a new contract that included substantial reductions to health care and retirement benefits. Beidler wrote a letter to The Marietta Times in September 2006 criticizing Eramet’s position in the labor dispute and imploring “this community to come together and support the workers that Eramet has locked ouot; they, too, are our neighbors.”
Ohio Citizen Action later organizing a Christmas Toy drive for the workers’ families, and union officials confirmed that members of the environmental groups had spent time with workers on the picket line.
During the lockout, Steve Tompkins, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 1-00639, told The InterActivist magazine that workers were afraid the environmental groups wanted to shut down Eramet, thereby costing workers their jobs – a claim members of Ohio Citizen Action and Neighbors for Clean Air vehemently deny. Nonetheless, Tompkins said workers have reason to share the groups’ concerns.
“We’re exposed to [Eramet’s pollutants] more than anyone else in the community,” he said. “We’d like a safe environment, too.”
Corporation accuses non-profit of meddling, having economic motives
Depsite Beidler’s actions, McKinney said Eramet has met with other members of Neighbors for Clean Air on an individual basis and is currently attempting to organizing an official meeting with the group. The problem, according to McKinney, is NCA’s affiliation with Ohio Citizen Action. Eramet is currently unwilling to meet with the statewide environmental group because of its tactics, he said.
“They distributed their audit [of Eramet] without giving us the opportunity to review it and to evaluate any errors in it,” said McKinney. “Then they wanted us to address it after the fact, after they made a media circus out of it.”
In response to the fact that Neighbors for Clean Air and Ohio Citizen Action jointly published their Citizen’s Audit of Eramet last summer, McKinney offered a further distinction between the two groups.
“The big difference is members of the Neighbors are not getting paid,” he said. “Ohio Citizen Action, those are paid activists with benefits. We don’t want to talk to paid, professional activists, but we will talk to local residents with concerns.”
According to Ruth Breech, Citizen Actions Southern Ohio programs director who heads up the group’s Eramet campaign, the group’s door-to-door canvassers are paid about $9 per hour, while directors like her make roughly $27,000 per year.
Ohio Citizen Action Executive Director Sandy Buchanan, a 30-year veteran of the organization, told The Athens NEWS her annual salary ranges from $47,000 to $48,000.
Breech and Buchanan confirmed that OCA employees become eligible for health care benefits after a three-month trial period.
Asked about his own compensation from his employer, Eramet, McKinney declined to comment.
“I don’t really care to know their salaries,” he said. “What I know is their business remains viable by attacking Ohio industries and moving on to other industries when that funding has dried up.”
Buchanan said companies frequently question OCA’s integrity because the registered
501(c)3 non-profit organization employs paid staff.
“For a for-profit company, the driving force of that company, by virtue of just the fact that they’re a for-profit company, is to make money,” said Buchanan. “That’s their motivation, so they must assume that’s what everybody else is about.
“Our motive – and you can look at 30 years of Ohio Citizen Action – is to prevent pollution and protect public health,” said Buchanan.” We don’t have to be working on Eramet. We’re working on Eramet because of the level of their problem and the long-standing community that wants something done about it, and asked us to help – very, very clearly.”
From Appalachia to China?
Eramet may be a top polluter in the region and even the country, but according to McKinney, soon the facility will no longer be the only producer of manganese alloys in the Mid-Ohio Valley.
“We have a new competitor that opened up an old plant on the West Virginia side that’s just coming up to speed,” he said. “They’re going to be doing both ferromanganese and silica-manganese.”
According to McKinney, Eramet’s new competitor is a company called Felman.
“But that facility and ours, we’re the only ones in North America,” he said. “We want to stay in business, because without our operation, that all goes to China.”