A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Ken Rechtin: A permit to polute, really? EPA needs to hold Newport company accountable for air pollution

Located in Newport, River Metals Recycling (RMR), a subsidiary of Nucor (NUE, NYSE), annually obtains a “pollution permit.” It is issued by the State of Kentucky EPA. This “pollution permit” allows RMR to pollute our air and our Licking River (here, I will focus on our air quality).

Only recently, after numerous complaints from citizens choking on noxious odors and clouds of smoke, the State EPA has finally begun to use their power and hold RMR accountable. In the last six months, the State EPA has twice found RMR to be in violation of their air pollution permit. This is called a “Notice of Violation” or a “NOV” in governmental jargon. (As an aside, it is virtually impossible to determine the punishment, if any, that RMR might receive from these two NOV’s.) This is just a beginning; much more is needed.

Photo provided of smoke pollution taken during regular operations of River Metals Recycling

In a prior column, which can be found here at the NKyTribune, I cited the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s 2021 EPA Enforcement Alert”, EPA310-F-21-003 which in part reads:

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is publishing this enforcement alert (Alert) because EPA and state investigations have identified Clean Air Act violations at metal recycling facilities that operate auto and scrap metal shredders, causing excess emissions of air pollution.”

Also in that column, I promised some examples of hammer-mill shredder operators (the exact machine used by RMR) that have begun changes which will comply with the Federal Clean Air Act. The following three examples are from the above cited EPA Enforcement Alert:

• “Schnitzer Steel (California) owns and operates a facility in Oakland, CA. On February 3, 2021, the California AG announced a settlement with Schnitzer. The settlement requires Schnitzer to pay $4.1 million in penalties, implement supplemental environmental projects, and make significant changes to its operations and practices. Schnitzer will install two regenerative thermal oxidizers, a temporary CEMs, and an acid control system by December 2022.”

• “Sims Metal Management New England Corporation (SMM) owns and operates a scrap metal shredding operation that uses a 7,000 hp shredder in Johnston, RI. EPA and Rhode Island found that SMM constructed a new major source of VOC emissions without obtaining a permit and without installing required emission controls. In September 2020, SMM entered into a settlement that requires the company to pay $250,000 in federal penalties and $2 million in state penalties. In addition, SMM will install a control train consisting of an enclosure, fans, pollution controls to reduce particulate matter, a regenerative thermal oxidizer to reduce VOCs, and an acid gas scrubber.”

• “Prolerized New England Company (dba Schnitzer Northeast) own and operate a scrap metal shredding operation that uses a 9,000 hp shredder in Everett, MA. Massachusetts found that Schnitzer Northeast was a major source of VOC emissions needing to install best available control technology. Schnitzer Northeast entered into a settlement with Massachusetts and paid a penalty of $900,000. Schnitzer Northeast installed a control train consisting of an enclosure, fans, drop out boxes to reduce large particles, venturi scrubbers to reduce small particles, regenerative thermal oxidizers to reduce VOCs, and acid gas scrubbers.”

These three examples have some common components:

• The State EPA, the Federal EPA and the State’s Attorney General all acted in the best interest of their communities. They cited the companies and levied truly significant fines for violation of the Clean Air Act.

• The three recycling companies acknowledged their shortcomings, paid their fines, and made real changes to their operations to reduce and potentially eliminate their air pollution.

Another example is found in this quote from a column in the Star Tribune, February 2023, by Chloe Johnson:

“Northern Metal Recycling, a massive metal shredder……the biggest shredder in Minnesota, crushes up to 350 tons per hour of cars, appliances, and other sources of reusable metal. Shredding the scrap metal risks fouling the air with a range of pollutants, including particulate matter or soot, toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and mercury. Northern Metal (now) funnels its air through two filters and a special heater and plans to add a new system to control acid gases.……No other metal shredder in Minnesota is capturing its air in a building, let alone filtering it.”

But the pollution in Minnesota persists. These following examples are so very similar to what the citizens of Newport experience.

“A shredder has operated in New Ulm, Minnesota for years, but it was purchased by Crow Wing roughly 18 months ago. Since then, complaints over noise, vibrations and lingering smoke have increased, the New Ulm Journal reported in November.

Two neighbors and a city official confirmed the site is now shredding far more often than it used to, usually five days a week.

Joe Johnson lives next to the shredder in the house he grew up in and later bought from his parents. Johnson said in an interview that he and his wife are debating whether to leave the home because of the smoke and noise from the metal recycler. His children won’t play outside when it’s running because of the noise. At times, powerful vibrations have made him worry his windows would shatter.

“I don’t think homeowners should have to live next to something like that, especially when they don’t know the health hazards,” he said. “The more and more I read about airborne particulates, the more it scares me.”

Ken Rechtin

Frank Rod Miller, who lives on the other side of the facility, said some of the smoke from the shredder has been yellow- or orange-colored in recent months.”

Meanwhile, Meleah Geertsma, Director, Environmental Justice Policy; Environment, Equity & Justice Center, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) reports that in Chicago things are not much better:

“On the air side, car shredders are not only associated with toxic hazmat fires that can negatively impact air quality for miles. According to the U.S. EPA notice of violation (NOV), General Iron’s shredder (located in Chicago) also emits significant amounts of smog-forming pollutants, which can have impacts on local health as well. Indeed, U.S. EPA cited General Iron for exceeding the federal major source threshold for these pollutants, which is significant given that Chicago is not in compliance with national ambient standards for ozone. Such smog-forming pollutants can occur when the shredder rips apart car components like gasoline tanks. Based on the EPA NOV and General Iron’s state air permits, it appears that the company did not disclose these emissions in its permit applications for its shredders. Tiny particles of metal from the shredder and dust from the facility are also concerns from an air quality and public health perspective.”

It’s about time for our Kentucky officials — Governor Andrew Beshear, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, our State EPA Commissioner Tony Hatton, our State Senators and Representatives and our Federal officials — to enforce the laws requiring breathable Clean Air for all.

The views and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views or opinions of this publication, its owners, writers, or editors. These are solely the ideas and opinions of Ken Rechtin, a resident of Newport. If you wish to contact Ken, he can be reached on his cell at 859-250-2263 or via email at kennethrechtin@gmail.com.

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