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January 19, 2003

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Judge's resignation irks CSD opponents

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Enterprise Staff Writer

"I think there was a disappointment in the group because Judge Pfeiffer has a good environmental record ... People are disappointed and afraid of a setback in the case." Simona Vaclavikova - Ohio Citizen Action

The resignation of the judge assigned to hear the state of Ohio's case against Columbus Steel Drum has generated mixed reactions from those involved with the case.

Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. will leave the the Franklin County Municipal Court's Environmental Division to be Columbus city attorney. (See story on page A2).

Representatives from both Columbus Steel Drum and the Ohio Attorney General's office, which filed suit against the company in November, said the judge hearing the case is irrelevant to its outcome. Gov. Bob Taft will name Pfeiffer's successor at the environmental court.

However, a spokesman for a group representing area residents said the change could be a major setback in efforts to eliminate odors and other pollution escaping from Columbus Steel Drum's Blatt Avenue plant.

Simona Vaclavikova, program director for Ohio Citizen Action, said Pfeiffer is virtually irreplaceable as an environmental advocate.

"We really wanted him to hear this case," Vaclavikova said. "Judge Pfeiffer is known to be responsive to the community and concerned about environmental issues in Ohio. We believe that, considering the case, the outcomes would be favorable and he would have taken into consideration not only the environment, but the health effects and problems the community has been suffering from because of Columbus Steel Drum."

Vaclavikova has helped area residents organize into the Gahanna-Jefferson Citizens for a Safe Environment. That group, she said, did not take the news of Pfeiffer's resignation well.

"I think there was a disappointment in the group because Judge Pfeiffer has a good environmental record," Vaclavikova said. "With him being away, of course people are disappointed and afraid of a setback in the case, given the fact that we don't know who is going to replace him."

Told residents were depending on him, Pfeiffer said, "I hope it's not me personally. I hope it's the court."

The attorney general's office filed suit against Columbus Steel Drum in November after the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency received more than 15 verified complaints against the company.

According to state law, verified complaints require the EPA director to conduct an investigation and, if the complaint is found to be valid, refer it to the attorney general's office for resolution. Among those who have filed this specific type of complaint are the City of Gahanna, the Jefferson Township trustees, the Mifflin Township Fire Department and the Franklin County Board of Health.

In addition to strong odors, area residents and the plant's industrial park neighbors have complained for years of nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats and burning eyes when exposed to fumes from the facility.

Columbus Steel Drum uses caustic chemicals and a high temperature furnace to recondition 55-gallon drums used to store commercial products such as paints, solvents and cleaners. The plant processes approximately 5,000 drums a day.

The company's local operations manager, Ron Grannan, said that testing agreed to by the attorney general's office was completed last week and he is awaiting the results.

A hearing regarding a temporary injunction against the company scheduled for Jan. 23 has been postponed until Feb. 20 to allow for Pfeiffer's replacement to be named.

In the meantime, Grannan said the company is continuing to seek solutions to its odor problem.

"Who the judge is is a non-issue," Grannan said. "It could be a more stern judge. It could be less. That's not part of the equation. We're just proceeding and whatever comes out, comes out."

Gahanna Mayor Becky Stinchcomb -- who has been part of a team of public agencies collecting information in support of the suit against Columbus Steel Drum -- said it is too early to try to predict how the change will affect the case.

"I'm not going to worry about that until it happens," Stinchcomb said. "We would certainly be hopeful that we would get someone as insightful as Judge Pfeiffer, who has been supportive of our efforts. Hopefully, the governor will make an appointment of someone similarly disposed to the sensitivity of the issue."

Vaclavikova, however, said her confidence in Taft is not as strong.

"It's all about looking at the record and we know the record of Judge Pfeiffer was good and that's what we wanted," Vaclavikova said. "We're just skeptical of whoever is appointed by Gov. Taft."

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