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Company says it isn't a toxic chemicals polluter, made error on EPA report

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Steel & O'Brien Manufacturing

The Steel & O'Brien Manufacturing facility on Route 98 in Arcade, Thursday, June 23, 2022.

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Steel & O’Brien, a Wyoming County metal parts fabricator, told the government it released 4,066 pounds of toxic nickel and chromium into the air in 2020.

Those emissions resulted in the facility getting tagged with the highest federal risk-screening score of any manufacturer in Western New York, based on the potential public health risk from its pollution.

But a plant official now says the number reported by the company to the Environmental Protection Agency is wrong.

Pete Beyette, general manager of Steel & O’Brien in Arcade, said the plant emits almost no toxic chemicals due to down-draft tables and a dust-collection system that captures 99.9% of all airborne particles.

The company failed to consider the efficiency of the dust collection system in determining its on-site air emissions, Beyette said.

“The calculation we were doing was wrong. We did it wrong and we submitted it to the EPA incorrectly,” he said. “We do run a very clean site here. We are not a polluter of toxic waste.”

The EPA’s annual “Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators” score factors the amount of toxic chemicals emitted by a facility, as well as the toxicity of those chemicals and the size of the population that potentially could inhale or otherwise come into contact with the chemicals, among other criteria.

Steel & O’Brien’s score was more than 3,000 times the median score for the fabricated metals industry nationwide.

The Buffalo News reported the EPA data in a story on July 11. Prior to publication, a News reporter left two voicemails and sent three emails to Steel & O’Brien representatives seeking comment on the data.

Beyette acknowledged that the company received the inquiries, but chose not to respond because it had a policy against talking to media. He said he has since revised that policy.

Steel & O’Brien submitted 2021 emissions numbers to the EPA in June, and those are accurate, Beyette said. Those submissions show almost no releases of chromium and nickel.

An EPA spokeswoman confirmed that Steel & O’Brien also submitted revised emissions numbers for 2020, 2019, and 2018.

How common is it for companies to overstate their toxic emissions, in error?

The EPA hasn't done an analysis, said spokeswoman Melissa A. Sullivan.

But Sullivan said facility managers are legally bound to file accurate and complete reports for any toxic chemicals manufactured, processed or otherwise used.

The EPA also may inspect a facility or review records to verify reported release estimates or changes to those estimates, she said.

Steel & O'Brien hired an Atlanta consulting firm to review its data and calculations for 2018-2020.

Steel & O’Brien had reported stack emissions of 4,386 pounds of nickel and chromium in 2018, 3,876 pounds in 2019 and 4,066 pounds in 2020. The consulting firm, RPS Group Inc., calculated fugitive emissions at .0004 pounds in each of the three years.

The consultants said in a letter that Steel & O’Brien’s reported air emissions numbers “did not take into account the dust collector efficiency, which resulted in a significantly higher quantity being reported.”

They said their “cursory review” indicated a “likely mis-calculation in the quantity of emissions reported for each chemical.”

2nd firm with pollution error

VanDeMark Chemical in Lockport similarly submitted amended emissions reports to the EPA after the company initially reported releasing a chemical called hydrazine, resulting in risk-screening scores above 400,000 in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

VanDeMark's chief environmental officer Christopher Banach said the company mistakenly reported using and releasing hydrazine, a highly toxic chemical found in rocket fuel, instead of another chemical, hydrazine monydrate, which does not have anywhere near the toxicity of hydrazine.

When The News called VanDeMark to inquire about its risk-screening scores, Banach explained the reporting error, which he described as a clerical mistake. 

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My byline has run in the Ithaca Journal, USA Today, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the New York Times. I have been a staff reporter at The Buffalo News since 2002 and currently am part of the watchdog team.

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