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Wednesday, May 16, 2001 Local Forecast & Weather

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Posted at 6:31 p.m. EDT Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Boehner tells EPA chief pollution suit counterproductive'

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rep. John Boehner has asked the Bush administration to reconsider a pollution lawsuit against Ohio steelmaker AK Steel, calling it ``punitive and counterproductive.''

In a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Whitman, Boehner said he hoped ``you will work in partnership with employers, rather than through litigation.''

``We are concerned about (the) punitive and counterproductive aspects of this litigation,'' he wrote.

Whitman hasn't replied to the letter, dated May 3, but copies of it have been circulating among environmental groups.

``It gives the impression that Congressman Boehner is more interested in protecting the profits of AK Steel rather than the health of the people of Middletown, Ohio,'' said Ed Hopkins of the Sierra Club.

``When agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment find violations of the law and litigate, the local congressman should not just step up to the company's defense,'' he said.

Jana Chapman, a spokeswoman for Boehner, said the congressman asked Whitman to take a look at the AK Steel case because it is the largest manufacturer in his southwestern Ohio 8th Congressional District, employing some 3,700 workers.

``They contribute $1.5 billion to Ohio's economy and contribute high-paying jobs to the district and are one of the only steel companies in the nation who are actually turning a profit right now,'' she said. ``Those are the reasons Congressman Boehner sent this letter.''

The lawsuit was filed last year by the federal government, and the state government asked to join the case. A federal magistrate recommended that Ohio be allowed to join, but the final decision on that is still pending before U.S. District Judge Herman Weber in Cincinnati. Weber also is considering the steel company's motion to dismiss the case.

Meanwhile, settlement talks have been under way, and local politicians have sought high-level help in Columbus.

In a letter to Gov. Bob Taft, the elected commissioners in Butler County, Ohio, which includes AK Steel's Middletown Works, said they were worried about the possibility that losing the pollution lawsuit could lead to the company shutting down its furnace.

``What good is clean air when it comes at the cost of hungry children and unemployed parents?'' the commissioners wrote.

AK Steel spokesman Alan McCoy said the company would have few financially sound choices if it were to be hit with the double whammy of having to buy expensive pollution controls plus pay maximum penalties of $25,000 a day.

``We don't think we would lose but if we were to lose, and subjected to maximum fines and required to install $80 million worth of controls, there are things we'd have to look at. It's not a threat to anybody, it's just prudent business,'' he said.

The core of the case is the government's contention that AK Steel violated air and water pollution laws.

The steel company said it was complying with the law under the terms of a nearly 20-year-old exemption agreement that allowed pollution to be measured on a plantwide basis instead of stack-by-stack and pipe-by-pipe. ``We absolutely deny that we broke our agreement,'' McCoy said.

``We continue to negotiate,'' said Joe Case, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. ``If we can bring the company into compliance and deal with the concerns of the suit, that would be a move in the right direction.''

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