Neighbors upset about dusty debris from cement plant
Seattle Times staff reporter
At Harbor Island Marina, 80 or so pleasure craft are moored just a hundred feet from Ash Grove Cement, a 19-acre plant and Seattle's biggest maker of cement.
Amid warehouses and terminals, it's an unlikely place for a yacht. But boat owners, some of whom are West Seattleites, say the spot is convenient.
Many, though, complain that dust from Ash Grove regularly dirties their boats. Although the dustings have lessened in recent years, the occasional sprinklings are not acceptable, they say.
Ash Grove representatives say they try to be a good neighbor, alerting boat owners via e-mail when dust from the plant, southwest of Harbor Island, accidentally crosses its fence lines, and paying for car and boat detailing.
Sometimes it's coal dust, barged in to fuel plant operations, or fine particles of what appears to be limestone, the main ingredient in cement. Other times, it is clinker, a dry form of raw cement. The superfine and sticky dust settles on windows, cars, buildings, boats and the inside of gutters.
"We get hammered a bunch," said Kathryn Wisner, who with her husband, Steve, owns the Stacey Lee, a 47-foot power boat.
While Ash Grove officials have paid several times to clean the boat, Wisner is tired of complaining to the plant and to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA), which oversees local air quality.
The dust is an issue for many Ash Grove neighbors, who are pressing for stricter, more specific regulations in the final version of Ash Grove's Title V permit, a new comprehensive emissions permit mandated by a 1995 amendment to the Clean Air Act. The new permit would be geared to help PSCAA better enforce and monitor plant emissions.
According to PSCAA, Ash Grove is in compliance with local and federal laws. The plant's emissions are well below allowable levels. Company officials said they haven't had any violations since October 2001 and that neighbors are using the permit process to press for advantages to name Ash Grove as the sole source of dust in the industrial area.
Since the plant opened in 1992, Ash Grove has invested more than $4 million to corral its dust. It has covered all clinker conveyor belts; regularly sprays water on the premises to tamp down dust; and has more than 50 "bag houses," which act as stationary vacuums, sucking up particles before they cross the property line.
But the making of cement is inherently a dusty business, and sometimes mechanical failures lead to accidental dustings.
"We never claimed that we are angels," said Gerald Brown, Ash Grove safety and environmental manager. "But when things break, we have upsets — those things are out of (our) control."
Since 2000, PSCAA has issued Ash Grove 22 written warnings and 14 violations and has levied $39,000 in fines. But most of these were for emissions irregularities and only a handful for dust. Ash Grove representatives say the company is a good neighbor that vigilantly works to control dust. But there is only so much the company can do and only so much for which it can claim responsibility.
"We recognize that we are not the only facility that generates dust around here," said Brown, pointing out that the Lafarge cement plant is nearby, as well as concrete companies.
Neighbors say the plant should bear more responsibility for property damaged by an accumulation of what they believe is dust from Ash Grove.
The Port of Seattle owns commercial and industrial properties covering 200 acres in the lower Duwamish industrial area near Ash Grove, including two marinas, and Terminals 104 and 106. Port officials say a buildup of cement dust has made for pricey and frequent maintenance.
"Our position all along is that it is an industrial use and it is located in an industrial area; the Port knows and accepts that," said Susan Ridgley, an attorney for the Port of Seattle. "But to the extent for which they are damaging our property, they should pay."
The biggest complainant against Ash Grove is its next-door neighbor, International Belt & Rubber Supply, which for more than a decade serviced and supplied conveyor belts to the cement plant at a cost to Ash Grove of $300,000 to $400,000 a year.
The business relationship with Ash Grove, however, ended abruptly in August 2002 when Bill Andre, co-owner of International Rubber, submitted a $5,500 claim for costs in cleaning the roof of his company's building. His son, Bruce Andre, estimated they shoveled at least half a ton of cement debris from the roof.
"Before, we never said anything," said Bert Evans, International Rubber co-owner. "We were doing business with them."
The complaints, most submitted by the Andres, have thickened a file at PSCAA and are part of public testimony the agency has collected as it weighs Ash Grove's permit application.
"When you look at who's making noise, it's almost exclusively an International Rubber show right now," said Matt Cohen, an attorney who has represented Ash Grove since 1996.
While dust is apparent just about everywhere near Ash Grove, one of the problems is figuring out where it originated. Air-quality inspectors say they need a half-cup of a dusting to try to determine whether it is flyaway dust that has floated over the Ash Grove fence line. Neighbors say they rarely can gather that much. The PSCAA can issue a nuisance ticket if a building is affected by the dust if the agency can determine where the dust originated.
"That's such a dirty area, there is so much heavy industry in that area, that I'm going to have a real hard time saying the dust came from that plant," said Mario Miller, PSCAA supervising inspector.
Nor can inspectors issue tickets that treat the dust as a nuisance violation unless a person — not a building — is directly affected.
Neighbors say the current rules don't do enough. The Port wants off-site monitoring of the dust to be required as a condition of the new permit from the PSCAA.
"The agency's efforts up to now have been probably well-intentioned but completely ineffective," Ridgley said.
Air-quality officials say it's hard to peg responsibility for dust in an industrial area on just one company.
"There is a difference between knowing it and proving it in court," Miller said.
Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2752 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published July 21, was corrected July 23. A previous version of this story needed a clarification. Inspectors at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency say that they can issue a nuisance ticket if a building is affected by the dust if the agency can determine where the dust originated.
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