By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MIDDLETOWN - A poison creek runs through it.
Ray Agee's reflection is seen next to a warning sign submerged in the brackish water in the Excello Lock in Middletown, which is along Dick's Creek.|
([name of photographer] photo)
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Dick's Creek, a tributary of the Great Miami River that winds through the heart of this Butler County community, has been off limits to the 55,000 townsfolk here since the mid-1990s because of pollution that could cause cancer to people who swim or wade in the creek or eat fish or drink from it.
One of the most polluted waterways in the state, the sediment at the bottom of Dick's Creek would be classified as hazardous waste if found in a landfill, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Signs posted around the creek warn people to steer clear. That's because of high levels of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been recorded at 2,000 to 3,000 times the limit considered safe by the federal Clean Water Act.
"About the only place that comes close to the PCBs in Dick's Creek is the Ottawa River in Toledo, where we had a landfill discharging contaminated oil directly into the river," said Bob Fry, chief of the Health Assessment section at the Ohio Department of Health. "The problem with these chemicals is that they don't readily break down in the environment. They can get spread around by a flood, or by someone wading in the creek."
The source of the PCBs in Dick's Creek is the subject of a federal lawsuit against AK Steel Corp., a Fortune 500 company that is the city's largest employer.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed the original suit against AK Steel in 2000, asking the court to force the company to abide by environmental laws, clean up the creek and pay civil penalties. The Ohio EPA and two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the National Resource Defense Council, were later allowed to join the litigation.
The lawsuit is winding its way toward conclusion. Attorneys for all parties must complete the sharing of information about the case - a process known as discovery - by August. Arguments of law must then be completed by November, which is when some sort of settlement or trial is expected.
AK Steel maintains that it does not pollute the creek and that there are dozens of other plants, junkyards and sewer systems that could have allowed the hazardous chemicals into the stream. The company acknowledges that a small amount of PCBs entered the stream from its landfill in 1995, but that problem was quickly taken care of.
Company spokesman Alan McCoy said the steel maker spent $17 million on wastewater treatment at its Middletown plant alone last year, and the company forked over an additional $3 million on investigation and remediation of the Dick's Creek watershed.
"Assistant Attorney General Gary Cox said the contaminants persist in the creek's sediment and that there have been continuing violations since the lawsuit was filed.
Ray Agee doesn't need tests to know the creek he learned to swim in is ruined. Agee grew up in Middletown and now lives just yards from the AK Steel plant. He says children in the neighborhood continue to play and fish in the stream despite warnings. The creek runs directly behind Amanda Elementary School's playground.
"That creek was pristine when I was growing up," said Agee, 62. "I've gone back there and seen bicycle tracks, footprints and mud. I know kids are still getting in that water, and I'm afraid for them. It's a great loss."
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