RUTHERFORD COUNTY, N.C. (WLOS) — Two years after a catastrophic fire shut down the American Zinc plant (AZP) outside Forest City in Rutherford County, News 13 has documented at least 41 environmental and plant hazardous material safety violations since 2014. This includes the company's self-report that it transported hazardous waste across state lines to a landfill not equipped to handle it.
The nation's top environmental agency, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has stepped in, and for the past two years, has had an open investigation into worker safety and environmental compliance problems. The plant's parent company, American Zinc Recycling (AZR), has faced more than $16 million in environmental penalties and compliance requirements at its various operations in South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Chicago.
American Zinc in Rutherford County continues to ramp up production of the valuable metal zinc at the plant that employs several hundred workers. The metal sells for about $1,700 per ton and is used for various things such as anti-rust coating for car undercarriages and anti-rust coating on highway guardrails. It’s also used in zinc oxide sunblock, which parents often use on their children's noses to protect against UV rays. Zinc is extracted at the plant from hazardous steel waste dust called WOX.
The Mooresboro plant emerged from bankruptcy several years ago when zinc prices on the open market plummeted. The company was formerly named Horsehead and emerged from bankruptcy under its current name, American Zinc.
MEMORIES OF THE FIRE
Sunday, April 28, 2019 was a night residents in rural Mooresboro who live around American Zinc will never forget.
"I was in bed and I heard this awful explosion," said one resident who lives about a quarter-mile away.
"You could see flames shooting above the trees," said Mark Voyles who lives several miles away from AZP.
"It smelled awful. It made my eyes water," said another eyewitness who lives three hundred yards from the plant.
"All big industrial plants have hazards," said William Hunter, a noted expert in the field of zinc manufacturing plants.
The US Chemical Safety Board referred News 13 to Hunter last year, calling him the world's leading expert on zinc plant operations and hazards. Hunter, a graduate of Cambridge University, is a metallurgical engineer. He spent 30 years in the zinc plant industry and is listed on the United Kingdom's Register of Expert Witnesses for his knowledge of the zinc plant operations.
"Zinc smelting plants, of which this is, have quite big hazards," said Hunter. "And, it's worrying that there have been so many violations."
RUTHERFORD COUNTY PLANT’S VIOLATION HISTORY
News 13 has documented 41 violations in public filings for American Zinc since 2014. William Hunter, the zinc plant expert consulted for this investigation, and other environmental experts tell News 13 that 41 is a significant number.
"I've been dealing with this company for six years now, met twice with the plant manager and environmental managers there, and have encouraged both DEQ and EPA to take actions to keep their pollution under control," said David Caldwell, an environmental advocate for the Broad River.
"This s---t smells awful," said a former plant worker describing American Zinc's wastewater that flows into the nearby Broad River in Rutherford county.
The worker spoke out to News 13 in 2016, aware the plant had for the past several years faced state environmental permit violations for its effluent, which is wastewater that comes from the plant's production of zinc.
At the time, AZP officials told News 13 that the strict permits protect the Broad River even when there's a violation. An AZP spokesperson said the permits have a safety range built in.
In 2020, regulators with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued AZP violations for shipping 765 tons of hazardous waste to two landfills not equipped to handle hazardous waste. AZP is listed as a large quantity Hazardous Waste operation. The report shows 27 trucks went to a landfill outside Charlotte. The additional trucks went to a landfill near Spartanburg, South Carolina. Signs at the facility state the public is prohibited from going in.
"There are several failures there by what we call the generating company, American Zinc," said Gary Poliakoff, an environmental attorney based in Spartanburg.
Poliakoff reviewed state documents that show AZP admitted it shipped the hazardous waste with elevated levels of the potentially toxic metal cadmium, before test results showed the waste in the 27 trucks was hazardous.
"Logic dictates one should get the testing results before shipping it out," said Poliakoff.
State reports on the violations show AZP has changed shipping protocols so the issue doesn't happen again. Because test results showed the waste was just over the hazardous level threshold, South Carolina permitters said it didn't require removal from the landfill. North Carolina permitters didn't order removal either. State permitters have not issued AZP any financial penalties but say the case remains open in concert with the current open EPA case.
In 2019, American Zinc got cited for storing hazardous waste at the private Mayse Warehouses on Old Caroleen Road in Forest City. Shipping records indicated the company sent 700 oversized containers of lead concentrate but when EPA inspectors came to check it, reports show they found over 3,000 super-sized sacks of the lead concentrate that totaled over 13 million pounds.
"I'm appalled to tell you the truth," said retired Rutherford County schoolteacher Myra Crabtree who lives three miles away from the Mayse Warehouses. "The fact that they (AZP) had industrial material in those warehouses that is hazardous is unbelievable."
Violation documents show AZP removed the waste. But inspectors still found lead and arsenic on floors and "high concentrations" on pallets after the sacks were removed. State reports show some of the sacks were punctured before being removed from the warehouses. The owner of the Mayse Warehouses did not return News 13’s requests for comment.
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality permitters ordered American Zinc to deep clean the warehouses but DEQ didn't issue the plant a fine.
William Hunter, the zinc plant smelting expert, lives in Sussex, England. He's followed American Zinc's story for years and is familiar with the technology the plant is using to extract zinc from hazardous metal dust waste. When asked what he feels the public should be most focused on, Hunter replied with a single thought.
"My biggest concern is cadmium," said Hunter. Cadmium is a toxic metal that is a by-product of AZP's zinc smelting process. In 2014 and 2015 the plant got cited four times for violating cadmium restrictions in its wastewater that goes into the neighboring Broad River.
In 2019 the EPA issued a $1.5-million order, demanding plant operators both assess and then improve safety measures both for workers and for the environment. Within the report, the EPA highlighted the potential dangers for humans exposed to cadmium, considered a toxic metal. The report stated cadmium can affect the "the heart" and "developing organs." The report went on to state cadmium is "carcinogenic."
Hunter, familiar with the risks of cadmium, said dangers are well-documented throughout history. "Toxic to the body's kidney, to the skeletal system."
While the EPA officially continues to work on the open investigation of American Zinc, Dawn Harris-Young, a spokeswoman for the EPA Region #4, said the EPA can't comment during an open case.
Gary Poliakoff, the environmental attorney in Spartanburg who News 13 spoke with, said it's not unusual for EPA cases involving plants to go on for years as plants like AZP continue to operate.
"It happens frequently," said Poliakoff. The plant has had no recent cadmium violations but additional ones tied to wastewater, specifically for issues with acidity and pH balance of wastewater released from the plant into the Broad River. American Zinc has a state DEQ permit to release up to 980,000 gallons of wastewater per day into the Broad River.
Environment advocates News Thirteen consulted with said NCDEQ has issued AZP a relaxed cadmium-compliance permit that gives the plant until 2027 to bring it's cadmium in wastewater in compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act.
"The numbers in the permit seem to be there to protect the company and disregard the environment," said Hunter.
State permitters use water effluent cadmium concentration limits for the permit which DEQ spokeswoman Anna Guerney said regulators can’t calculate into any equivalent poundage amounts. William Hunter said that's untrue and did a rough calculation for News 13 of what the state has set out in permits he said is possible to calculate to pounds.
Hunter said right now, NCDEQ permitters are allowing AZP to release a maximum average of just under three pounds of Cadmium every day into the Broad River. Hunter said that would potentially equate to a maximum allowance of about 6,000 pounds over the next six years into the Broad River since the state has given the plant six more years to comply with Clean Water Act Cadmium restrictions until 2027.
Hunter said the cadmium limit would be one quarter as a maximum release of that into the river if NCDEQ permitters ordered the plant comply with Federal Clean Water Act restrictions of cadmium into U.S. waterways.
News 13 also spoke with attorney Patrick Hunter who works with environmental watchdog group Southern Environmental Law Center. He also said North Carolina permitters should be doing a better job requiring the plant to comply with stricter cadmium release limits into the Broad River.
"The public should care because the public uses the Broad River and these limits are there to protect the aquatic environments," said attorney Hunter. "If anybody is swimming in the river, if anyone is eating fish from the river, if the water is used for irrigation of a field." All of those, he said, are of concern with what he and other environmentalists characterize as a relaxed cadmium permit allowed by North Carolina DEQ permitters.
News 13 has tried for two months, to get North Carolina permitters and their directors to sit down and discuss their decision not to enforce cadmium limitations contained in the Clean Water Act for American Zinc. The plant is the only one in the state where North Carolina permitters have given a plant until 2027 to comply with cadmium restrictions in polluted wastewater required by the Federal Act. Despite repeated requests for interviews, a department spokeswoman told News 13 the following people were all unavailable to speak with or interview: Julie Woosley, Hazardous Waste section chief for the Division of Waste Management, Daniel Smith, director for the Division of Water Resources for DEQ and Sergei Chernikov, the permitter who signed the DEQ permit allowing the 2027 schedule.
Anna Guerney, spokeswoman for DEQ, told News 13, "any questions you have will continue to be responded to via emails."
Guerney laid out why state permitters have allowed American Zinc a window of years to bring its cadmium effluent into compliance. The plant, Guerney said, has a unique way of extracting zinc from the hazardous waste metal dust called WOX.
"Other plants across the globe use primarily Waelz Kiln process to extract zinc," said Guerney. "This process requires melting the dust at 1000 C to 1500 C. It requires significant amounts of fuel consumption and produces a substantial amount of carbon dioxide. Waelz Kiln also produces toxic metal vapors and dust. The process at AZP is more complex and more environmentally friendly. It uses very low energy and discharges a relatively clean brine solution."
Guerney added more on the allowance: "There are only two other such facilities in the world: Japan and Italy," said Guerney of AZP’s production process. "Prior to 2015, the facility was able to meet cadmium limits. Only after the cadmium standard (Clean Water Act) had become more stringent, they began experiencing cadmium compliance issues."
Guerney said NCDEQ is not violating any part of the Clean Water Act by allowing AZP until 2027 to comply. She said NDDEQ is given authority to review mitigating factors for a compliance schedule.
DEQ documents reviewed by News 13 show AZP representatives have written permitters the plant and originally asked for a decade to comply, in order to plan, purchase and test cadmium limiting equipment for its wastewater. William Hunter, the zinc smelting plant expert, News Thirteen consulted with, agreed the plant's production technique is unique. But Hunter noted other zinc plants using different techniques are able to successfully limit cadmium released in wastewater.
Mark Voyles, who continues to have concerns about the plant. had one thought about the schedule.
"Why does it take seven years for them to get the systems in, when they're operating now," said Voyles. "The jobs are welcome, but at what cost."
Ensafe, the company hired by AZP to review the plant's compliance issues, a review required by the 2019 EPA Order, issued a1,400-page report in 2020. Much of the report includes old reports, violations and documented material from DEQ and EPA. But Ensafe provided a summary of its findings stating:
“Substantial improvements in plant design in 2018 and 2019 have greatly reduced potential for releases to the environment.”
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein's office is currently representing the state's interests in the open EPA case against American Zinc. The AG's office, EPA officials, and North Carolina Environmental Quality officials would not comment on the case because they say its pending. Despite repeated requests for interviews, Emily Moseley, spokeswoman for American Zinc, said no on camera interview was available. Moseley did not respond to emails requesting responses to the EPA open case and other questions raised in News 13's investigation. Recent EPA settlements involving AZP's parent company, AZR, include a $4.8-million settlement in South Carolina and a $7.6-million settlement in Pennsylvania.
To reach Reporter Kimberly King with an Investigative tip, email her at email@example.com.