Friday, January 14, 2000

Plant called polluter

Neighbors' lawsuit cites thick dust

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        GALLATIN COUNTY, Ky. — Five years ago, Gallatin Steel moved into the western end of Gallatin County, bringing jobs and development to the area. Vernon Ellis and his sons, Richard and Tom, claim the steelmaker also brought health and dust problems.

        Those concerns prompted them to file a lawsuit in federal court against the company that employs about 350 and manufactures flat-rolled steel from scrap metal. The lawsuit alleges emissions and environmental violations.

        The Ellis men also filed a second, similar lawsuit against the company alleging more violations.

        The federal government is investigating the family's claims and may intervene in the case, said James Lofton, with the U.S. Department of Justice's environmental enforcement section. He will be present at a hearing this afternoon in federal court.

        The family is not asking for damages. They want Gallatin Steel to clean up its act, acknowledge wrongdoing and pay environmental penalties.

        The firm denies wrongdoing.

        “We believe all of their claims are totally without merit. The law is on our side,” said Lexington attorney John C. Bender, who is representing Gallatin Steel.

        The Ellises say their lawsuit was filed out of fear and worry.

        “You can't come home any more and feel comfortable. We're plain, down-to-earth people that know we're being done wrong. (We) will not stop until the government or somebody makes them conform,” said Tom Ellis, 47.

        “It's just not right what they're doing,” said his broth er, 44-year-old Richard Ellis. “If we don't look after our families, who will? This is our community. This is our home.”

        Four generations of Ellises live on 167 acres along U.S. 42. They are within a mile of Gallatin Steel Co. and Harsco Corp. The latter company processes the steel company's molten slag, which contains impurities from the steel-making process. Both companies are defendants in the Ellis lawsuits.

        The Ellises said they didn't think twice about their new neighbors until relatives began suffering from spontaneous nose bleeds and respiratory problems. They began suspecting that the heavy gray dust appearing in nearby woods and on their lawns, cars and birdbaths was the cause.

        The Ellis men have gone through two video cameras in efforts to document dust problems and how Harsco Corp. dumps molten slag on the ground. If the ground is damp, contact can result in a loud booming noise and a dark mushroom cloud floating into the air.

        Dust particles then drift toward nearby homes and trailer parks.

        The Ellises have a special “trick:” they mix water with the dust and it turns red.

        They believe the metals contained in the dust are causing their health problems.

        “It's not natural,” said Vernon Ellis, 78. “I'd like a judge to know ... we don't have to live in this kind of mess and shouldn't have to.”

        The Ellises spent two years trying to get state and federal environmental officials, and Gallatin Steel officials, to do something. They claim they ran into brick walls.

        Holly Hightchew, Gallatin Steel's spokesperson, said the company has tried to cooperate with the Ellis' requests.

        “We have been very cooperative with them,” she said. “We've tested their entire property. We'd like to get this resolved and we want to be a good neighbor to the Ellises.”

        The Ellis' case seemed to go nowhere until they were introduced to Covington attorney Jeffrey M. Sanders. He worked for the state Environmental Protection Agency for five years and said he almost immediately recognized they had a case.

        He said Gallatin and Harsco don't have proper permits and are committing major emissions and hazardous waste violations.

        The federal government has filed its own lawsuit against Gallatin Steel, alleging the company exceeded its permits for carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides between April 1995 and August 1997.

        To settle that case, Gallatin Steel has offered to pay $450,000 in fines and implement more than $1 million in improvements. The federal government has asked the courts to not rule on their submitted plans — a proposed “consent decree” — until the government has investigated the Ellis family's claims. The decree remains unsigned.

        “The Ellises are doing what is right,” Mr. Sanders said. “They've done this in the face of public criticism. We'll be here until justice is served.”

        When Gallatin Steel moved in, other companies settled in the area, too. They included Steel Technologies Inc. and Huntco Steel Inc. Property along that stretch of highway once generated about $8,000 a year in taxes. The amount now is about $750,000.

        But the Ellises aren't the only ones who say that something isn't right about all the dust in the air.

        Steve Sullivan, who lives in a trailer across the road from Gallatin Steel, said he's grown accustomed to the smell of hot molten steel in the air.

        “It makes a big boom (but) I got used to it,” he said. “I don't pay attention to it.”

        Ken King can see the mushroom clouds and molten slag from his back windows. When rain falls on the dusty trees in his yard, the muck runs off the leaves and onto his car. It sometimes takes hours to wash off the black splotches.

        “It's just a nasty mess,” Mr. King said. “If (the Ellises) can get them to do something about it, it's great by me.”

        “I don't like the government a whole lot,” said his son, Chris, “but if the government can do something about it, it will be well worth it.

        “I'm all for businesses making money but not if it's bad for the neighbors. If we had the money, we would've taken them to court. It used to be a decent place to live. Not any more.”


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