The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently signed a consent decree with the Pittsburgh-based S.H. Bell Company to reduce manganese pollution from the company.
The plant processes, stores and transports metals and other industrial materials from its 92-acre facility which spans both East Liverpool, Ohio and Ohioville, Pennsylvania.
Under the agreement, S.H. Bell is required to collect air monitoring data from three fence line locations, to report and take specific actions if ambient air manganese exceeds government action levels. This fence line data is available on EPA website.
The company must take measures to control fugitive manganese dust, and ensure a tracking system for manganese materials.
Specific steps are required for S.H. Bell to investigate and take corrective action if emissions exceed certain levels.
In a separate complaint against S.H. Bell, the federal government says emissions of ambient manganese from the plant presents “an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health under the Clean Air Act.”
Manganese Shown to Impact IQ
According to Amanda Kiger, an environmental activist in East Liverpool, the rusty, brown dust coats nearby houses.
“It’s like a gritty, powdery substance,” she says.
Kigar has four grandchildren living there, and says the problem is worst on the low income, residential streets that lead up to the plant.
“So kids are going out, there’s manganese stuff on their bikes, on their slides,” she says. “So they’re out there sweating, and you know kids, they wipe their face, put their hands in their mouths, you know all the things that kids do.”
After air testing around Ohio found that East Liverpool had the highest levels of manganese in the state, local school officials asked researchers at the University of Cincinnati to see if it was impacting children in the district. The resulting study looked at 106 children from ages 7 to 9 in East Liverpool, and found an association between higher levels of manganese in their hair with lower IQ scores. It was published last September in the journal NeuroToxicology.
“It horrifies me,” Kiger says.
The study did not identify the source of airborne manganese, as there are multiple sources of manganese in the East Liverpool area.
S.H. Bell disputes the findings.
A Community Reacts
Amid the used furniture and trinket shops in downtown East Liverpool, Diana Cable works at a new lunch place. She hasn’t heard about the impact of manganese on local kids, and she says S.H. Bell and a controversial hazardous-waste incinerator near downtown are both important in this community. She trusts them.
“These companies been here for many years,” Cable says. “And they’ve provided work for people in the area for many years, as with the coal mines.”
Cable knows many coal miners who have gotten sick from their work. But, she says, this region has lost many coal jobs, as well as its ceramics industry.
Sitting at the counter, salesman Cris McNicol says East Liverpool needs to hold on the industries that remain.
“The area itself over its history has always sacrificed the environment to some degree for good industrial jobs, dating back to the pottery and the steel days,” McNicol says.
This region voted for President Trump. An analysis by the New York Times finds that environmental enforcement actions against polluters dropped during the first nine months of his administration.
The number of civil cases filed at the EPA was about one-third fewer than under the Obama administration, and the amount of money the agency sought in civil penalties against polluters was about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought over the same time period, according to the Times.
McNicol agrees with Trump’s anti-regulation stance.
“I’m not against a clean environment,” he says. “But I think there’s a tradeoff of how clean do you go if it costs you high paying jobs?”
But some people here want more accountability. Late last year, the East Liverpool City Council sent letter to the EPA demanding action against that hazardous-waste incinerator, owned by Heritage Thermal Services. Under Obama, the EPA filed a Notice of Violation against it for repeatedly releasing harmful pollutants into the air. The Times reports that after a 2013 release of boiler ash and steam at the incinerator, Ohio health officials said the toxic chemicals emitted, “could pose a hazard to small children.” In an email to the Allegheny Front, an EPA spokesperson said there’s been no resolution to the notice.
Meanwhile, activist Amanda Kiger sees the region’s future not in the jobs provided by these companies, but in protecting the health and intellectual capacity of the people who live here.
“They are being poisoned with things that literally harm their decision making processes and their ability to learn,” she says. “That’s also going to be shown in what the economic viability of the community looks like..”
Still, Kiger calls agency’s consent decree against S.H. Bell Company a good first step.