September 5, 2002
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Threat of suit pushes EPA to act on polluter
Thursday, September 5, 2002

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has known for more than a decade that a Gahanna company is polluting the environment with high levels of lead, arsenic and cancer-causing chemicals, according to state records.

Air, water and soil contamination at Columbus Steel Drum has been well-documented by EPA investigators. But senior agency officials declined to take legal action against the company until local officials threatened to sue earlier this summer, records show.

The EPA asked for help from Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery's office, which sent the industrial-drum recycler a letter Aug. 22 urging the company to negotiate a cleanup plan.

EPA records show the company has repeatedly violated a similar agreement brokered in 1992.

Neighbors have complained of chronic odors and water pollution from the drums that once contained paints, solvents and hazardous chemicals.

"It doesn't appear that anything is getting better out there,'' said Paul Wenning, an inspector with the Franklin County Health Department.

As many as 5,000 barrels a day are cleaned and repainted on the site. The drums pass through high-pressure sprayers and an industrial furnance during the process.

EPA tests in April 2001 found that chromium emissions from the company's smokestacks were five times the legal limit. Lead levels in the exhaust were three times the limit.

Breathing high levels of chromium can increase the risk of lung cancer, according to the U.S. EPA. Lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system.

Failing the stack test is one of several pollution problems documented by investigators.

Others include:

* In January, noxious fumes traced to the company forced the evacuation of nearby Blacklick Elementary School. Four months later, the Mifflin Township Fire Department fielded 71 complaints in one day about strong natural-gas odors. The vapors turned out to be chemicals from Columbus Steel Drum.

* The company has failed to comply with the 1992 agreement to clean up soil and water contamination around the facility, according to EPA records. Chemicals of concern include lead, chromium and cancer-causing compounds known as polycyclic aromatic carbons.

* A ditch that flows past the site before draining into Blacklick Creek is contaminated with high levels of the same toxic chemicals. Tests show the contamination hasn't spread to the creek, but investigators are concerned the pollution could foul nearby water wells.

* The EPA is investigating a complaint that the company illegally shipped a load of hazardous waste to a conventional trash landfill in June. Columbus Steel Drum was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine in 1993 after a similar incident.

"We've tried to work with them, but things have ground to a halt,'' said David O'Toole, site coordinator for the EPA's Division of Emergency and Remedial Response.

Getting somebody to clean up the site has been more difficult because the facility is operated by one company but another firm is under orders to remove the contaminated soil.

Under pressure from local officials and the EPA, the current operator recently installed scrubbers designed to control air pollution. He blamed the problems on the former operator, who opened Columbus Steel Drum in 1955.

"It's unfortunate we can't get this done overnight,'' said Edward Paul, president of Queen City Barrel, a Cincinnati company that began leasing Columbus Steel Drum about two years ago. "We've got nothing to hide, and we're trying to operate a nice, clean, safe facility.''

Franklin Steel, the plant's original owner, told the EPA in June that financial problems forced it to cancel a contract with a consulting firm drafting a cleanup plan. "We appreciate your patience,'' wrote Sidney Blatt, the company's president.

Although the EPA has sent the company seven citations for violating air pollution laws, the agency didn't threaten to go to court until complaints were filed by the city of Gahanna, Mifflin Township, Jefferson Township and the Franklin County Health Department.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien warned the company in late July that he would file a lawsuit on behalf of Jefferson Township if Columbus Steel Drum didn't control its air pollution within 60 days. The Health Department is considering a similar lawsuit.

The problems aren't new. Internal EPA e-mails reviewed by The Dispatch show that air-pollution investigators asked the agency's leaders in May 2001 to take action against the company. They have yet to do so.

In a July e-mail, one inspector wrote that "there's not really much else we can do to change things out there until that happens.''

Jim Leach, an EPA spokesman, said the complaints from local governments got the agency's attention.

"Those complaints sent it to the top of the list,'' Leach said.

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