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Works decision in ‘few months’

By Thomas Gnau, Journal Business Writer, E-mail:

AK Steel Corp. leaders may decide the fate of Middletown Works’ steelmaking operations — and up to 2,000 jobs there — in a “few months,” a company spokesman said Friday.

This week, stricter federal air pollution-control or “MAC” (Maximum Achievable Control technology) rules were posted in the Federal Register. AK and other integrated steelmakers have three years to comply with those rules, installing pollution-control equipment to cut metallic emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

But ordering, engineering, installing and testing the equipment takes time, AK Vice President of Public Affairs Alan McCoy said Friday.

“Realistically, we have months to make a decision,” McCoy said.

AK has about 4,000 employees in its plant and Curtis Street corporate headquarters. The company has more than 10,000 employees nationally.

McCoy presented the economic picture facing AK this way:

MAC compliance could cost AK up to $80 million, he said. Relining the blast furnace — maintenance that has not been performed on that steelmaking end’s key component since 1984 — will cost another $100 million, he said.

McCoy added to that “untold millions potentially” of fines from a federal and state lawsuit against AK alleging violations of environmental laws.

“This is not a threat,” McCoy said.

Government regulators say they hear those warnings. But they also say they have a job to do — and that job includes enforcing federal air pollution standards.

“There’s a very real concern that this is some sort of posturing,” said Mark Gribben, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro.

The attorney general’s office has joined a federal lawsuit against AK alleging environmental violations. If no settlement is reached, the lawsuit could go to trial in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati late this year or early next.

AK first publicly warned in March 2001 that the lawsuit, fines and pollution-control costs might lead to a reconsideration of continuing the steelmaking or “hot” end of Middletown Works. Closing down that part of the plant could kill up to 2,000 jobs, the company has said.

But this week, the president of the union representing more than 3,000 Middletown Works workers said he has sought from the company’s industrial relations staff some hint about the future of hot end.

Ed Shelley, president of Armco Employees Independent Federation, said Friday he hasn’t heard a response from the company yet.

Shelley’s letter was sent last week in response to a steady stream of rumors and expressions of concern, he has said.

But no one in state government wants to shut down any AK operation, Gribben said.

“They (AK) need to be held accountable, but not to such an extent ... that it becomes economically impossible to run the business,” Gribben said.

“We’re of the opinion it’s possible to find that point,” he added.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said AK’s leaders have never warned government representatives that pollution controls may force them to kill local jobs, said

“AK never actually said, ‘We can’t do this because it might shut us down,”’ Ohio EPA spokeswoman Dina Pierce said.

But McCoy said the company has never said it was unable to abide by new MAC rules.

“Ultimately, what we’ve said is we may, in the end, choose not to because it doesn’t make any sense economically,” McCoy said.

The MAC rules will do away with the “bubble exemption” protecting AK’s blast and basic oxygen furnaces, Pierce said.

The “bubble” allows AK to group sources of pollution together as long as overall pollution from those sources is kept below a certain level. One alternative is imposing standards on each individual source, a stricter measure.

“The blast and BOF (basic oxygen furnace) are the primary sources of particulate emissions that are causing the nuisance in the neighborhoods” near the plant, Pierce said.

Shelley said he wants more information about the MAC rules.

“I don’t know if the three years is reasonable or not,” Shelley said.

U.S. EPA spokesman Bill Omohundro declined to comment, citing the agency’s lawsuit with AK.

Published 05.24.03



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