SPOKANE, Wash – Kaiser Aluminum Corp. will appeal a $388,000 fine by the state Department of Ecology for alleged sloppy operation of air pollution-control equipment at its Mead smelter, officials say.
Operation and maintenance problems were responsible for more than 800 pounds a day of pollutants escaping from the aluminum smelting plant northeast of Spokane, Ecology officials said Thursday in levying the fine. The agency said it was the largest such fine issued in Eastern Washington. The alleged violations stemmed from installation of new equipment on the plant’s aluminum-making “pots” in 1995, but Ecology inspectors didn’t learn until September 1998 that the operational changes were the likely source of the increased air pollution, Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert said.
Kaiser officials called the fine “outrageous” and said they would appeal to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.
“At no time was there any danger to the environment or the public health,” Kaiser spokeswoman Susan Ashe said.
Bud Leber, Kaiser’s regional environmental affairs manager, said he was mystified by Ecology’s findings. He accused Ecology of “shamefully misleading the public” about pollution from Kaiser’s smelter.
Since 1992, the company has had a program to monitor the gases that escape from shields over the pots. Except for one incident in 1996, Ecology inspectors have found the plant to be in compliance with air pollution standards, he said.
“During the time of this fine, we were in compliance,” Ashe said. “We have the data to prove it.”
Ecology contends the problems began in August 1995 and continued through October 1999, resulting in emissions of fluoride and dust and soot particles.
Seals on potroom equipment that would have prevented the emissions were inadequate, the pollution-control agency contends.
“We’ve seen operation and maintenance improvements starting in late 1999 that have brought pollution levels below what they were a decade ago,” said Cullen Stephenson, head of Ecology’s industrial pollution section. “However, the emission increases between 1995 and 1999 were simply unnecessary.”
Leber said new federal fluoride standards allow three pounds of fluoride per ton of aluminum. Measurements taken from potlines at Kaiser Mead are less then two pounds a ton, he said.
Ecology contends the company’s lax maintenance and operation procedures gave it an edge over its competitors.
“That means the Mead plant avoided the expense of careful maintenance of their facility and therefore had a competitive advantage over other companies that were doing the right thing,” Stephenson said.
Leber said Ecology has known since 1995 that there were changes in potroom operations, and even fined the company $4,200 in 1996 for noncompliance.
The problems were mentioned in a letter Kaiser sent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in requesting an extension for compliance with new federal standards until October 2001.
“Ecology has taken a couple of sentences out of context,” he said.