Sunoco officials refute reports of pollution

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2005

HAVERHILL — Bright lights illuminate the green, rolling hills of Southern Ohio as billowing clouds of steam fill the air. Pipes, boilers and smokestacks dot the landscape like a small city along the horizon.

Driving along County Road 1 in Lawrence and Scioto counties, motorists pass an industrial alley of power plants, chemical manufactures and other industrial sites.

Sunoco Chemicals’ Haverhill plant has been one of those facilities since 2001 when it purchased Aristech Chemical Corporation.

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Located just across the Scioto County line between U.S. 52 and County Road 1, company officials are proud of what the plant does, proud of the people it employs and proud of the company’s environmental track record.

So, you can imagine the surprise recently when Sunoco leaders saw published reports ranking it as the facility along the Ohio River that released the largest volume of toxic waste in 2003.

Touting state and federal statistics, Sunoco disputes the fact that the company is among the top polluters. Much of the debate centers on reports stating Sunoco “released” 64.2 million pounds of toxic waste in 2003. Some of these reports were later corrected and clarified but officials feel that the damage was already done.

“As I read the AP article, it didn’t seem to fit with my knowledge of what goes on here,” said Jordan Morgan, plant manager at the Haverhill site.

“We did some research and went back to the Environmental Protection Agency numbers. That 64 million pounds number represents materials managed on site. 99.45 percent of that is recycled, treated or used for energy purposes. Therefore, a very small part of it is released into the environment, much of it is burned in the boilers as fuel.”

Haverhill produces a broad range of chemicals that are used by other industries. The facility is one of the world’s largest producers of phenol — a chemical used in the plywood, construction, automotive and appliance industries.

The reputation-damaging reports came as even more of a surprise to Morgan and others because they all said they feel the Haverhill plant is operating cleaner and more efficiently than ever.

The company says it meets all EPA requirements and current control standards for emissions and discharges. By using the toxic materials as fuel to fire the boilers, 99.99 percent of the material is destroyed, with very little emitted into the air, said Jim Fain, regional manager of health, safety and environment at the Haverhill site.

“We conduct full-scale tests of our boilers every three years and also monitor these emissions continuously,” Fain said.

Industry-wide reporting of toxic releases became mandatory in 1987. Since that time, the Haverhill site has reduced its emissions by 97 percent, Fain said.

Crunching all the numbers to determine exactly how much toxic material is “released” and “managed” can be difficult. The Ohio River spans three regions of U.S. EPA coverage and three state EPA offices. A variety of other state and federal agencies are also involved.

Mark Besel is an Environmental Specialist for the Ohio EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, a database that contains information concerning specific toxic chemical releases, transfers, and waste management and pollution prevention activities from manufacturing facilities throughout the United States.

Besel said he could see why Sunoco officials would feel they had gotten a bad rap.

“Managed and released are different concepts. Recycling and energy recovery are productive outcomes rather than something that would be discharged, which would be more negative,” Besel said. “… Recycling waste is a minimum impact on the environment and typically does something productive with it.”

Looking at just the release numbers compiled by the U.S. EPA, Sunoco released or transferred 472,000 pounds of chemicals at the site. The figure sounds like a lot, but doesn’t compare with the millions that were reportedly released. The difference between “managed” and “released” takes the company from ranking among the top to 82nd in the state, assuming that figures for other companies compared in the article were correctly listed as “released.”

“Our fundamental operating philosophy is to operate to the highest standards and to operate safely reliable and environmentally sound,” Morgan said. “Our corporation and our site are committed to environmental excellence. Our employees work very hard to make sure we operate that way.”

Just in terms of releases to water in 2003, EPA figures show Sunoco released a total of 61,607 pounds of 17 chemicals that are among the 600 listed on the toxic release inventory, ranking the company ninth in the state.

“Numbers 1 and 2 were both AK Steel corporations and they were in the millions,” Besel said. “So, (Sunoco) has enough that we mention the name and put it in the top 10, but it is really pennies on the dollar compared to the others.”

One of the chemicals Sunoco was cited as releasing was benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia. Though the company handles 5 million pounds of the chemical, it emits less than .03 percent of that, well under EPA guidelines. In fact, the emission may be even less but that is the lowest measurable amount, Morgan said.

Regardless, Sunoco officials maintain they are committed to the community, the environment and the 250 employees that it employs.

“We have an active community advisory panel that meets, typically, once a month,” Morgan said. “They review all this information, all the safety information and the environmental information. We seek their advice on how to operate in the community.”

“And our employees are part of this community. The employees are very much committed to environmental excellence and remaining a good neighbor within the community.”