YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The Mahoning Valley has a long industrial past, and even though industry has been slowing down for decades, the environment is slow to recover.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says pollution is widespread, but Ohio has the fifth-highest concentration of pollution sources in the nation.
Factories are the life blood of the economy, but at the same time, the exhaust and waste can poison the environment, with harmful chemicals escaping into the air, water and even soil.
Staying away from those chemicals can be almost impossible, said Youngstown State University Geology Professor Ray Beiersdorfer.
“We are living with our industrial legacy,” he said. “Particularly from the iron and steel production. They did a lot of damage to the streams.”
The U.S. EPA has launched a new tool called MyEnvironment, designed to break down every known source of pollution in the country. You can put in your address and search for the pollutants in the area.
Heavy metals, like mercury and cadmium, can damage the kidneys. These are found in abundance in the Mahoning River. Arsenic can cause cancer. It was found in the water at schools in Vienna in February.
Vallourec Star, producer of seamless Oil Country Tubular Goods, is in compliance with federal laws, but the company releases more than 200,000 pounds of chemicals into the air every year, according to the EPA.
In East Liverpool, Heritage Thermal Services released 4,600 pounds of chemicals in the air and 23 pounds into the water in 2014.
When the Heritage Thermal plant was proposed in East Liverpool, Alonzo Spencer says he was in favor of the plant.
The environmental services company provides advanced incineration of hazardous waste and other materials generated by manufacturing and service industries, according to the company’s website.
“They said they were going to create electricity and steam and sell it. Well, that sounds good, so I was in favor of it,” Spencer said.
But he said his opinion has changed, especially after a 2013 accident at the plant.
“They had an ash release. It covered the whole area,” he said. “That hasn’t been resolved yet.”
In February, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration also cited Heritage Thermal Services for a toxic exposure incident in which a worker was exposed to aniline gas.
Operators of Heritage Thermal said they have spent about $500,000 to prevent accidents like that ash spill from happening. They also say that the actual amounts of pollution reported at the plant are much lower than in reality.
“Due to the nature of our business, we take a very conservative approach to reporting. We are a clean and safe facility, and we provide an important service for our economy. We operate in compliance with all permits to protect health and the environment,” said Raymond Wayne, a spokesman for Heritage Thermal.
Wayne, with Heritage Thermal, invited WKBN to visit the incinerator. He said the company has improved and is working to protect the environment. That story will be available next week.
But, air pollution isn’t just a problem in East Liverpool. Over the past 40 years, experts say the air quality in the area has actually improved.
Tara Cioffi, with the Mahoning-Trumbull Air Pollution Control Agency, monitors air pollution. The agency puts out warnings on days when people need to take care.
Last year, the agency put out two warnings of a dangerous ozone and more than a dozen when risk was elevated.
Cioffi said the region is doing better than areas around Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Cuyahoga County had the most warnings in the state.
“We see a lot of bad reports, but since the 1980s, everything has been getting better, and we’re meeting our standards in Trumbull and Mahoning County,” Cioffi said.