Some environmentalists say the situation is part of a larger trend of weak agency enforcement that protects industry. Agency officials say their goal is to protect the environment and have been working with the company and city to correct the problem.
A Dec. 13 letter from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to wood paneling company Kronospan’s Eastaboga plant states the facility released waste, including formaldehyde, into Oxford’s Tull C. Allen Wastewater Treatment Plant for the last four years without the proper permit, which is against state regulations. Kronospan was also unable to provide monitoring reports for its waste or required plans to reduce its formaldehyde output last year, the letter states.
The letter, signed by Glenda Dean, chief of ADEM’s water division, requests that Kronospan “voluntarily consider strategies to resolve these present issues and prevent potential future issues. Please be aware that as a result of the aforementioned violations, the department is considering the issuance of an order with penalty.”
The December letter alleges that Kronospan discharged wastewater into the treatment plant without a State Indirect Discharge or SID permit. The company filed for the permit in June 2008, however, it was not issued until June 29, 2012.
According to state regulations, no one shall introduce pollutants into a treatment plant without having first obtained a valid SID permit from the department.
“The permit was applied for several years ago and was held up and the state knew it was being held up and knew we were operating under that application and they were OK with that,” said John Connell, director of human resources at the local Kronospan plant. “We’re a bit surprised by the notice. … We felt like they were working with us and with the city.”
The letter also claims that Kronospan had not submitted pollution-monitoring reports for July through October of last year. The company had also failed to file a report due Aug. 15, 2012, of plans to reduce its releases of formaldehyde into Oxford’s wastewater treatment system, the letter states. Formaldehyde is used to manufacture building materials and household products. Jerome Hand, spokesman for ADEM, said the waste from Kronospan went just into the treatment facility and not directly into the environment.
“We are addressing it and are submitting a report to ADEM and waiting to get their response,” Connell said of the violations.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, formaldehyde has “been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions.”
The formaldehyde caused problems for the Oxford treatment plant between March 2009 and December 2010, resulting in a $20,450 fine from ADEM in April last year. Oxford treatment plant officials have said the formaldehyde interfered with the facility’s systems, causing several violations, including discharging considerable amounts of ammonia nitrogen into the Choccolocco Creek for several months. Fecal coliform bacteria and chlorine were also detected in the creek at the time.
Hand said his agency has been working with Kronospan to correct the formaldehyde problem since 2009.
“The department received information indicating the Kronospan discharge was causing interference to the Oxford’s wastewater treatment plant,” Hand said. “Given this information the department worked with the Oxford wastewater treatment plant and Kronospan to determine appropriate limits for the SID permit to protect the plant and the receiving stream.”
Nelson Brook, member of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, said the letter is typical of ADEM.
“ADEM is notoriously lax in its ability to enforce regulations,” Brook said. “Time and time again, ADEM turns their head when violations occur and are happy to send warning letters and paper enforcement rather than send meaningful fines.”
Brook added that ADEM is mainly looking out for industry interests.
Hand disagreed with the accusation that his agency tries to protect industry from punishment or is slack on enforcement.
“Our main goal is to safeguard the environment,” Hand said. “When a facility or permitee is out of compliance with their permit, we take the necessary steps to ensure compliance is achieved as soon as possible whether it be with enforcement, consent orders, fines or technical assistance. All facilities are treated equally.”
Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Birmingham office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, agreed with Brook about ADEM’s enforcement procedures.
“What we’ve found is ADEM typically has not enforced as comprehensively as we would like,” Johnston said. “This may be due to various factors, including not having an adequate budget or personnel.”
Brook, however, said the lack of a strong budget is a convenient excuse.
“It’s absolutely politics and protecting the status quo,” Brook said. “The agency is purposely set up with a bare-bone budget for proper oversight … so it can give permission to companies to pollute our rivers and streams.”
Frank Chitwood of Coosa Riverkeeper, said he also sees ADEM as an agency that cares more about helping industry than protecting the environment and that the Kronospan case is a clear example.
“It’s just a joke — they don’t do anything except send a letter,” Chitwood said. “They’re not here to protect the people from industry; they’re protecting the industry from the people.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.