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Risk of Cancer Is Great In Ohio River Village

Jan 14, 2003 | AP

People who lived near the New Boston Coke plant during the 1990s are more at risk for cancer than almost anyone else in the world, state officials said.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one of every 500 people exposed to airborne benzene and other chemicals from the plant has a higher-than-normal risk of developing cancer.

By contrast, the cancer risk in most urban areas is between one case per 100,000 people and one per 1 million.

"That was a record," EPA toxicologist Paul Koval said. "We were hard-pressed to find any other place in the country, or even the world, with levels that high."

The EPA won a $2.6 million court judgment against New Boston Coke last month, which until last spring operated the processor in this Ohio River village of 2,340 people about 85 miles south of Columbus.

Mayor Jim Warren said nobody in town knew how bad the pollution was or the risks it posed.

"We thought everything was under control," Warren said. "Then again, we live in a river valley lined with steel mills and chemical plants. We're getting it from all sides every day."

A ruling issued in December by Scioto County Common Pleas Judge Howard Harcha said New Boston Coke never complied with permits that required it to limit air pollution from its battery of ovens, which baked coal into coke for fueling blast furnaces in Midwestern steel mills.

The biggest portion of the fines imposed by Harcha $1.9 million was a record judgment for the EPA's Division of Air Pollution Control. Harcha also fined the company for violating hazardous-waste and clean-water laws.

When the plant's 70 coke ovens were baking as much as 600,000 tons of coal a year, EPA tests determined levels of airborne benzene in New Boston were 42 times higher than levels found in Cleveland and four times higher than in Cincinnati. Long-term exposure to benzene can cause leukemia and anemia.

Court records show the plant emitted high levels of pollution for years, despite routine inspections by the EPA and the Portsmouth Local Air Agency.

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