Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Controversial hazardous-waste incinerator to pay fine for ash cloud

Days after an eastern Ohio hazardous-waste incinerator malfunctioned and sent an ash cloud over surrounding neighborhoods, tests showed high levels of arsenic and lead on a nearby backyard play slide and a pickup truck.

The findings were “problematic,” according to an email sent by an Ohio Department of Health program administrator to colleagues after the July 2013 incident.

The email said the amount could have been harmful in the short-term to a child.

The levels of lead on the backyard slide in East Liverpool were more than twice the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s soil standard. Levels of arsenic and lead on the truck were even higher.

But when the Ohio EPA announced this week that it had reached a settlement with Heritage Thermal Services concerning the malfunction, the state said that any “impacts were determined to be minimal” by the health department.

Under the settlement, Heritage will pay the Ohio EPA $34,000 for the 761 pounds of ash that spewed into the surrounding area. The company also is required to make changes to prevent future problems at the facility, located about 175 miles east of Columbus along the Ohio River.

Heritage said in a statement that it has invested in “enhanced procedures that further ensure safety and compliance.”

One person who lives near the incinerator called the settlement “a joke.”

“It’s a disgrace, it’s an absolute insult,” said Mike Walton, an East Liverpool resident who has fought the incinerator for years. “What about the people (here)? What do they get? Do they get money to help them five years down the road when there’s suddenly a spark of cancer in their lungs?”

The east end neighborhood of East Liverpool caught the brunt of the ash cloud. About 14 percent of the residents there are unemployed and 12 percent earn less than $10,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Heritage hired a contractor to perform tests after the incident and sent the results to state health officials along with risk assessments.

The email from the Ohio Department of Health program administrator suggests he was not impressed.

“I thought the description of arsenic toxicity was rather benign — I especially liked the part implying some exposure is good for general health,” Bob Frey, the administrator, wrote in August 2013.

“Arsenic is an acute and chronic poison and a known human carcinogen,” he said.

On Thursday, Frey said the Ohio Department of Health relied on tests from both the Ohio EPA and Heritage’s contractor to determine health risks associated with the ash release.

He said both the EPA and the contractor tested soil in neighborhoods around the incinerator at the end of July 2013 and found slightly elevated levels of arsenic.

Those levels were low enough, though, that state health officials believed they presented no long-term health threats, Frey said.

Arsenic poses a bigger health threat when it is ingested, Frey said, so health officials were most worried about children who might have been exposed.

After the ash release, Heritage washed houses, vehicles and yards to get rid of any residue. Rains also hit East Liverpool shortly after the ash release, he said. “We were pretty confident that most of this stuff was washed away.”

However, Frey said that health officials wanted the plastic slide tested “as soon as possible.” He said he didn’t know whether those follow-up tests were performed.

The Ohio EPA could not answer that question and others on Thursday.

The settlement comes as the U.S. EPA is conducting its own investigation into the incinerator. The feds released a report in March that said Heritage repeatedly contaminated the air around the incinerator from November 2010 through December 2014.

Heritage is fighting those findings; the business and agency were scheduled to meet sometime this month to discuss the investigation.

The incinerator burns about 60,000 tons of waste too toxic for landfills each year. It employs about 180 people.

Heritage drew international attention in the 1990s when residents and environmental groups protested its construction. The incinerator overlooks the Ohio River, about 30 miles downstream from Pittsburgh and at the time was within 1,100 feet of an elementary school. The school has since closed.

The Ohio EPA will put $6,800 of the Heritage fine into its Clean Diesel School Bus Fund. The rest, $27,200, will be equally split between the EPA’s air pollution control program and the agency’s Environmental Education Fund.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *