Drummond to Pay $775,000 Penalty to EPA, Jefferson County Health Department

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Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, WBHM

The Jefferson County Department of Health held public hearings on the proposed renewal of the air emissions permit for ABC Coke. Concerns about the permit heightened following a federal corruption trial where an executive with ABC Coke’s parent, Drummond Company, and a lawyer were convicted in a scheme to thwart testing for pollution near the Tarrant plant.

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By Hank Black

Drummond Company has agreed to pay a $775,000 civil penalty as part of a settlement contained in a consent decree relating to alleged violations of environmental laws at its ABC Coke Plant in Tarrant.

The announcement was made Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the Jefferson County Board of Health. The consent decree, which was issued the previous day, will not be final until after a public comment period has elapsed.

The health department on Tuesday called the settlement “significant” and said it plans to use its half of the civil penalty to benefit public health in the area that was affected by the air pollution at issue.

“We’ll have discussions with elected officials and others in the area to figure out what kind of projects will help the environment and the public health there,” Jonathan Stanton, environmental health services director, said. “We really want them to be involved in that process and help to guide us as to what they need.”

Stanton indicated that the area affected could extend beyond the city of Tarrant. The process would not start until the consent decree is final.

Michael Hansen, CEO of clean-air advocacy group Gasp, said, “For the past six years, we have been expressing concern about ABC Coke’s hazardous air pollutants, including sounding the alarm about their benzene emissions. This enforcement action is all the more reason to strengthen the new ABC Coke Title V air permit, which is yet to be finalized, and make sure it is significantly more protective of public health for residents in the area and for the workers at the plant.”

The facility has applied to renew its air emissions permit. The health department hosted public comment forums late last year. Stanton said those comments are still being compiled, and when that process is completed, the proposed permit would be forwarded to the EPA for review.

The case dates back to a 2011 inspection at ABC Coke’s coke byproduct recovery plant, according to the complaint. That facility is where coke oven gas produced during production is recovered for reuse, where byproduct materials are collected for sale, and where the company disposes of wastewater from the recovery process, the announcement specified.

The complaint alleges violations of the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, which cover benzene emissions and waste, equipment leaks and fugitive emissions, and benzene waste.

Benzene is a carcinogen, primarily implicated in acute myeloid leukemia and can react in the atmosphere with other chemicals to form ground level ozone, or smog.

“Based on the 2011 inspection and a review of company records, EPA and JCBH determined that Drummond’s Leak Detection and Repair Program at (ABC Coke’s byproduct recovery facility) had a number of deficiencies, where equipment components were not included in the program, monitoring records were incomplete, and deficient, open-ended lines were observed, and components were not being monitored at the appropriate leak definition or frequency,” stated an information sheet released with the announcement.

The company corrected several of the problems, as confirmed by follow-up inspections in 2014 and 2018. Some of the violations cited that have not yet been corrected are to be addressed under terms of the consent decree, according to the announcement Friday.

ABC Coke’s website says it is the largest producer of foundry coke in the United States. Coke is used in processes to make iron and steel.

Half of the civil penalty will be paid to EPA and half the county’s health department, according to the consent decree. Additionally, Drummond will conduct a Supplemental Environmental Project that calls for four semi-annual monitoring events using specialized optical gas thermal imaging cameras designed to help detect leaks from equipment at the plant and confirm leaks are being reduced and eliminated.

Stanton said the thermal camera “is a big thing.” It can visualize benzene and other leaks even before they become a problem. He said the health department has been using such technology for more than five years to assess local refineries, coke byproduct facilities and natural gas flares.

“We feel like it’s a big step for those industries to make sure their emissions are cut down, even if it’s just by small amounts,” Stanton said.

“Today’s agreement demonstrates EPA’s dedication to working with our state and local partners to pursue violations of laws that are critical to protecting public health and bring companies into compliance,” EPA Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary S. Walker said.

The consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period beginning when the settlement is published in the Federal Register. Information on submitting comment is available here.

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