Public hears from federal officials on HTS settlement

EAST LIVERPOOL — Federal officials met Wednesday night with members of the public to explain a recent settlement reached with a local company that operates a hazardous waste incinerator in the East End.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as those from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the company, Heritage Thermal Services (HTS), spoke before a roomful of residents and city officials, also answering questions posed.

Elizabeth L. Loeb, senior counsel for the DOJ environmental enforcement section, gave a synopsis of the settlement, which resulted from negotiations between the two federal agencies and HTS following an event in July 2013 when emissions from the incinerator resulted in a notice of violations.

Loeb said the EPA felt the case was important enough to refer to the DOJ, saying defendants are always given an opportunity to settle before a lawsuit is filed, and negotiations began with HTS, which she said was “very cooperative” and began taking actions to correct issues even as negotiations were on-going.

What resulted was a settlement that included a $288,000 penalty for HTS as well as an environmental project requiring the company to pay out $302,500 to replace lead-lined water pipes for residents who otherwise might not be able to afford such work.

Loeb emphasized that the settlement is still not “written in stone,” with written comments still being accepted for the next 16 days that will be considered prior to asking the court to approve the consent decree.

John C. Matson, associate regional counsel for the USEPA, took questions posed on index cards from the audience, although the written queries quickly turned into a free-for-all as people began calling out questions from the audience.

Asked of any other type of local project was considered as part of the settlement, Matson said such environmental projects must, in some way, be connected to the violation, and since heavy metals were part of the emissions released in July 2013, it was decided eliminating lead would qualify.

When asked why all the fine money wasn’t benefiting the city, Loeb explained policy does not allow 100 percent of the penalty to go into the community. The $288,000 penalty will go into the U.S. Treasury, she said.

A letter of support for the lead abatement portion of the proposed settlement was read from Congressman Bill Johnson in which he referenced scenarios in Flint, Michigan and Sebring, saying this project will prevent such an occurrence in East Liverpool.

Long-time HTS opponent and Save Our County President Alonzo Spencer complained that local officials were left out of negotiations for the settlement, even though the city has an environmental justice designation, meaning the community should have been involved.

However, Loeb said such settlements are always confidential matters, otherwise defendants “won’t work with us.”

After the meeting, HTS officials said city officials were, in fact, consulted and brought into discussion on how a portion of the penalty could benefit the city, which Mayor Ryan Stovall has also said is the case.

Resident Thomas Redman claimed that, since HTS has been in the city, there have been more incidents of cancer and said, while he understands the jobs are needed, “Aren’t you supposed to protect us? Shouldn’t you investigate more? I’m not worried about myself, but I don’t want my sons sick. I’ve seen pink smoke; I’ve seen balls of ash falling from the sky. I’ve got concerns.”

His concerns were echoed by resident Mitzi Stoddard, who cried as she spoke of her ailing grandfather, taking exception with those officials who are from Washington, D.C. and Chicago, saying, “These are our lives, not all of you who live far away. Once the pink smoke happens, it’s too late.”

Loeb agreed, saying, “You’re right. Once it’s out the stack, it’s done, but our job is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Call us.”

“We care. We will help,” Matson added.

However, Spencer disagreed, saying that procedure has been followed in the past, with pictures submitted, but no action was taken.

Linda Rosen, with the Ohio EPA, gave those in attendance her phone number, encouraging them to call immediately if such things are observed.

Loeb said, “The EPA has no evidence of any health effects people are suffering (from HTS). If you have evidence, you can submit it at any time.”

Chris Pherson, president of HTS, said the company is “very excited” to have reached this point and get the issue behind it and to be able to spend a majority of the penalty on the local lead abatement project.

“We’re also excited to remain good neighbors as we have been for 30 years, and active in the community,” he said.

Pherson said he is responsible for about 180 employees and the community and said, “As president of HTS, safety is number one. We don’t put our employees in danger and don’t plan on putting the community in danger.”

He told those present they had his word that the company would continue to be proactive in reporting to the EPA.

Richard Wolf, another long-time opponent of the hazardous waste incinerator, commented before leaving the meeting, “You agencies are simply the apologists for this rogue company. All we get is gobbledygook, not responsible answers.”