Adjacent to AK Steel is a
neighborhood Middletown residents call "The Reservation." The
nickname comes from streets named for conquered Native
American peoples -- Omaha, Navaho, etc. Some residents feel
they, too, have been part of a losing battle.
|Towering inferno: Flame from an AK Steel
smokestack pierces the Middletown night.|
Nancy and James Cottle bought their house on Omaha Street
almost three decades ago, when the steel company was named
Armco. They blame discharges from the steel plant for damage
to their carpet and cars, and they fear the effects it might
have on their health.
"We have lived here for 27 years," James Cottle says. "I
have fought Armco since day one. If they don't stop this
pollution, if I live to be 100 years old, I'll still be
complaining about it."
The Sierra Club and Ohio Citizen Action have started
organizing residents for a campaign targeting pollution by AK
Steel. The environmental groups recently sent reporters small
plastic bags containing grit collected from the gutters on Ray
Agee's house on Navaho Street.
The sooty particulate matter isn't the typical stuff of
storm gutters, according to Susan Knight, water project
director for the Sierra Club. She says the waste contains
byproducts of steel production, many of which are heavy
"If you put a strong magnet on that bag, it'll pick it up,"
Don't look, don't tell
Alan McCoy, vice president of public affairs
for AK Steel, says he hasn't seen what was collected from the
gutters. Knight, Nancy Cottle and other activists and
neighbors tried to share their collection, taking an estimated
150 pounds to the corporation's annual shareholder meeting in
Delaware last week. But security personnel blocked their
"We have published rules for entry and no one is allowed to
take a bucket of dirt into our annual meeting," McCoy says.
Nancy Cottle says they were simply trying to return the
"It's their dirt," she says. "We're just returning their
dirt to them."
Asked to verify the gunk originated in AK Steel's plant,
McCoy says he doesn't know.
"I haven't seen the stuff," he says. "I can't tell you."
McCoy says AK Steel is responsive to citizen complaints,
but he won't talk about them.
"I'm not going to talk about specific complaints," he says.
The Sierra Club wants to talk about a complaint: The
organization says particulate matter in the air near the steel
plant can cause cancer. At the shareholder meeting, Chief
Executive Officer Dick Wardrop allowed everyone to ask one
question. Knight asked him to meet with environmental
activists. Wardrop said no.
"He said, 'You have no standing. I do not meet with people
who have no standing,' " Knight says.
McCoy confirms the exchange occurred.
"Our point is we're in court right now trying to resolve
these issues," he says.
Legal standing is exactly what the Sierra Club wants; the
organization has asked a judge to let it join a lawsuit
against AK Steel by the federal government. The state of Ohio
has already joined the suit -- filed by the U.S. Justice
Department on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) -- accusing AK Steel of more than 200 violations
of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Resource
Conservation and Recovery Act.
"These violations go back over a decade and the state of
Ohio has to feel pretty confident to go to court with this,"
says Andrew Thompson, spokesman for the Ohio EPA.
"We dispute the allegations," McCoy says.
The EPA wants AK Steel to install control measures the
company says will soon be obsolete, as well as pay fines. The
company has offered to install early versions of a new control
method, McCoy says, but the EPA insists on payment of the
"You ought to look at the agencies and ask why they offered
to trade better air emissions controls for penalties," he
AK Steel asserts it should not have to pay the fines
because it did nothing wrong.
"We continue to operate in a lawful manner at the
Middletown Works," McCoy says.
Middletown has the cleanest air of 12 monitoring sites
across the state operated by the Ohio EPA, according to McCoy.
But Ohio EPA says both McCoy's numbers and his
characterization of Middletown's rank are wrong. The agency
measures particulate emissions at 75 to 80 sites throughout
the state, four of them in Middletown, according to Thompson.
Middletown's air was in the middle of the range for 2001.
"It wasn't the worst, it wasn't the best," Thompson says.
An inventory submitted to Ohio EPA by AK Steel for the year
2001 shows the Middletown Works discharged more than 3,800
tons of particulate matter, 4,300 tons of sulfur dioxide,
3,300 tons of nitrogen oxides, 24,000 tons of carbon monoxide
and 743 tons of volatile organic compounds.
Cottles shut their windows at night. If they don't, Nancy
Cottle says, the inside of their house turns filthy from soot.
When the Cottles had carpeting in their living room, they say,
they had to replace it every two years because of
discoloration. Their vinyl siding has to be pressure-washed
twice a year.
"The window sills are always black," Nancy Cottle says.
In a fruit tree behind the house, leaves are dying. James
Cottle rubs his hand across them, then brushes away soot.
"It's like if you would take a handful of sand on it," he
McCoy says AK Steel has an outstanding environmental record
but admits dust might drift across the plant's fence line, as
it does from other sources in the city.
"The nature of state-of-the-art steelmaking in this world
does not preclude that from happening anywhere," he says, "The
fact is dust drifts off of Yankee Road and Oxford State (Road)
and diesel stacks and any number of sources that we all choose
to live with."
McCoy says a handful of neighbors make the majority of
complaints about the plant.
"There are some that continue to complain and some that
complain continually," he says.
The Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services
received 53 citizen complaints about AK Steel in 2001,
according to Kerri Kahlenberg, permit and enforcement area
supervisor. In one case, particles on a truck and house near
the plant contained iron, kish and coke. Particles covering
another resident's car overnight included coke, iron, unfused
fly ash, traces of graphite and sand, Kahlenberg says.
The company complains pollution controls are expensive.
Last year McCoy estimated amendments to the Clean Air Act
could cost AK Steel $80 million and force it to cut 2,000 of
the 3,700 jobs at the Middletown plant.
"We don't have $80 million laying around that we can afford
to spend without giving that considerable review," he says.
Meanwhile, the Cottles wonder about the plant's impact on
their quality of life.
"But what about us?" Nancy Cottle says. "We have to live
with this day in and day out."
Knight argues AK Steel can maintain its profits while still
doing what is best for the environment.
James Cottle agrees.
"It will cost them some money to stop this, but they can
stop this," he says.
In 2000, AK Steel had operating profits of $338 million,
according to Ohio Citizen Action. ©