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EPA Orders AK Steel to Reduce Nitrate Discharges, Provide Safe Drinking Water for Zelienople

Release Date: 6/7/2000
Contact Information: David Sternberg (215) 814-5548

David Sternberg, 215-814-5548

ZELIENOPLE, Pa. - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued an emergency order to AK Steel Corp. to provide an alternative water source to more than 4,000 people in Zelienople Borough and reduce dangerous nitrate discharges from its Butler steel mill.

The federal order under the Safe Drinking Water Act is intended to protect the health of people drinking the water in Zelienople, Butler County. Zelienople has a water intake on Connoquenessing Creek 21 miles downstream from AK Steel’s stainless steel plant on
Route 8, Butler.

“The citizens of Zelienople have waited long enough for safe water. Today’s order will eliminate the risk to the people of Zelienople from AK Steel’s excessive nitrate discharge into their drinking water supply,” said EPA Regional Administrator Bradley Campbell.

The EPA order requires AK Steel to identify all people who draw drinking water from the polluted waterway, including public and private wells near Connoquenessing Creek; to provide an alternate source of clean water; and in the long term, to reduce its nitrate discharges by October 2001.

Since 1995, AK Steel has more than tripled its discharge of pickling liquors into the creek from its Butler plant -- as much as 29,000 pounds per day -- causing dangerously high concentrations of nitrate in Connoquenessing Creek.

Drinking water with high concentrations of nitrates can cause serious illness and death in infants under six months of age from a condition known as “blue baby syndrome.” Too much nitrate reduces the capacity of blood to carry oxygen, turning skin blue, causing shortness of breath, and depriving the brain of oxygen, which impairs metabolism, thinking and other bodily functions. These symptoms can develop rapidly in infants.

The EPA’s health-based standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act sets a maximum contaminant level of 10 milligrams of nitrate per liter (mg/l) of drinking water. That’s the same as 10 parts per million. Pollution above that level is unhealthy for all people, especially young children, and poses an acute health risk to infants under six months of age, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Water samples from Connoquenessing Creek in the 30 miles downstream from AK Steel routinely show nitrate levels above 10 mg/l, the national standard. The creek sometimes shows nitrates as high as 100 mg/l, and registered a peak of 175 mg/l on October 26, 1999.

These discharges have increased dramatically in recent years as AK Steel increased production of stainless steel in Butler. Nitrates are a waste byproduct of the pickling liquor used to scour finished steel. Discharges into the creek rose from an average 8,000 pounds per day to 24,000 pounds per day from 1995 to 2000.

EPA’s order affects more than 1,400 households in the Zelienople water system, which includes 4,150 people in Zelienople and 250 in Marion Township, which purchases drinking water from the borough water system.

For two years, Zelienople Borough – at the suggestion of state officials – has provided bottled water to pregnant women and infants at the borough’s expense. EPA’s order today requires an alternate water source (such as bottled water) for all customers of the Zelienople water system, and shifts the cost from the borough to the steel company.

Besides providing water to Zelienople Borough, the creek recharges groundwater for private wells at homes and summer camps along its banks. Two camps, Camp Spencer and Camp Redwing, permit children to canoe but not swim, due to pollution concerns.

Connoquenessing Creek is Zelienople’s secondary water source. Scholar’s Run is the primary source. But drought conditions in recent years caused the borough to use the Connoquenessing more frequently. In 1999, Zelienople provided bottled water to the at-risk population for half the year when the borough drew water from the creek..

Under today’s order, AK Steel, formerly known as Armco Inc., will be required to:

            Identify and provide bottled water to populations at risk.
            Investigate how to reduce its nitrate discharges to a safe level.
            Lower nitrate discharges to a safe level by October 2001.

Campbell said EPA would closely monitor the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s renewal of AK Steel’s discharge permit this year, to ensure that protective safeguards are included and that Pennsylvania’s standards for nitrate discharges into public waterways are enforced in the future.