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May. 23, 2003

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Friday, May 23, 2003

AK Steel: Rules threaten future

Federal standards must be met in 3 years

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MIDDLETOWN - The clock has started ticking on new air quality standards for AK Steel and the country's other steel and iron makers - and AK Steel officials aren't sure they can keep making steel here.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published new air quality standards for steel and iron manufacturers Wednesday in the Federal Register. Factories such as AK Steel's Middletown Works plant now have three years to come into compliance.

It's a process AK Steel officials say will cost them $80 million. That expense, coupled with the possibility of another $10 million or so in fines from the federal and state environmental agencies and a $100 million upgrade to its blast furnace, has AK Steel officials saying its steel-making days in Middletown may be over.

"The uncertainties associated with additional pollution control equipment for steel-making, plus the potential for millions or tens of millions in fines sought by the U.S. government and the state, has cast some doubt on our ability in the future to make steel in Middletown cost effectively," said Alan McCoy, spokesman for the AK Steel.

McCoy said the company isn't threatening to leave town, just that it might import the steel for its operations, rather than making it at the plant. Still, that change could mean more than 1,000 jobs lost in this Butler County city of 52,000.

The new rules set limits on emissions of particulate matter from smokestacks, and reduces the amount of toxins, such as manganese and lead, allowed to be emitted. EPA officials say the rule will affect 18 plants in 10 states, and will reduce toxic air emissions by 67 tons per year and particulate matter by 5,800 tons per year.

The toxins targeted by the new federal rules are linked to cancer and kidney damage, along with respiratory and skin irritation. Particulate matter is known to aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and is associated with increased risk of premature death.

The new regulations are good news, some people in Middletown said. There have been scores of complaints filed by residents near the AK Steel plant about soot and other pollutants raining down on their homes and property from the plant most every night.

Tova Findley, a pregnant Middletown mother, has lived here for 13 years. She is skeptical of AK Steel's threats.

"They've been here for a long time," said Findley, who lives a few miles from the plant. "Clean it up or close it down. Our children's lives are definitely worth more than whatever AK brings to Middletown."

Dina Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, said the state fully supports the new regulations. The federal and state EPAs are suing AK Steel in federal court over air and water pollution issues.

The federal government has estimated the total cost of the new regulations at $16 million. That doesn't ring true with McCoy, who said the company's blast furnace was built in 1953. Retrofitting the new equipment onto the old furnace will be extremely expensive, and a new blast furnace would cost about $500 million, he said.

"It was not contemplated 50 years ago that we would have to go in and construct elaborate duct work, hoods and exhaust fans," he said. "It's the equivalent of taking a 1953 automobile and making it compliant with today's emission controls."

But that's exactly what it should do, said Susan Knight of the Sierra Club, which has joined the federal lawsuit against AK Steel.

"AK has spent years disinvesting in the community that built it," Knight said. "The environmentalists are asking for a recommitment to Middletown. This isn't about cost. They're going to have to deal with those costs no matter what they do. This is an issue about whether Middletown Works will invest back into the community."

Reporter Michael Clark contributed. E-mail

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