RUTHERFORD COUNTY, North Carolina (WLOS) — Two years after a catastrophic fire shut down the American Zinc plant (AZP) outside Forest City in Rutherford County, News 13 has documented at least 41 environmental and plant hazardous material safety violations since 2014. This includes the company’s self-report that it transported hazardous waste across state lines to a landfill not equipped to handle it.
The nation’s top environmental agency, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has stepped in, and for the past two years, has had an open investigation into worker safety and environmental compliance problems. The plant’s parent company, American Zinc Recycling (AZR), has faced more than $16 million in environmental penalties and compliance requirements at its various operations in South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Chicago.
American Zinc in Rutherford County continues to ramp up production of the valuable metal zinc at the plant that employs several hundred workers. The metal sells for about $1,700 per ton and is used for various things such as anti-rust coating for car undercarriages and anti-rust coating on highway guardrails. It’s also used in zinc oxide sunblock, which parents often use on their children’s noses to protect against UV rays. Zinc is extracted at the plant from hazardous steel waste dust called WOX.
The Mooresboro plant emerged from bankruptcy several years ago when zinc prices on the open market plummeted. The company was formerly named Horsehead and emerged from bankruptcy under its current name, American Zinc.
MEMORIES OF THE FIRE
Sunday, April 28, 2019 was a night residents in rural Mooresboro who live around American Zinc will never forget.
“I was in bed and I heard this awful explosion,” said one resident who lives about a quarter-mile away.
“You could see flames shooting above the trees,” said Mark Voyles who lives several miles away from AZP.
“It smelled awful. It made my eyes water,” said another eyewitness who lives three hundred yards from the plant.
“All big industrial plants have hazards,” said William Hunter, a noted expert in the field of zinc manufacturing plants.
The US Chemical Safety Board referred News 13 to Hunter last year, calling him the world’s leading expert on zinc plant operations and hazards. Hunter, a graduate of Cambridge University, is a metallurgical engineer. He spent 30 years in the zinc plant industry and is listed on the United Kingdom’s Register of Expert Witnesses for his knowledge of the zinc plant operations.
“Zinc smelting plants, of which this is, have quite big hazards,” said Hunter. “And, it’s worrying that there have been so many violations.”
RUTHERFORD COUNTY PLANT’S VIOLATION HISTORY
News 13 has documented 41 violations in public filings for American Zinc since 2014. William Hunter, the zinc plant expert consulted for this investigation, and other environmental experts tell News 13 that 41 is a significant number.
“I’ve been dealing with this company for six years now, met twice with the plant manager and environmental managers there, and have encouraged both DEQ and EPA to take actions to keep their pollution under control,” said David Caldwell, an environmental advocate for the Broad River.
“This s—t smells awful,” said a former plant worker describing American Zinc’s wastewater that flows into the nearby Broad River in Rutherford county.
The worker spoke out to News 13 in 2016, aware the plant had for the past several years faced state environmental permit violations for its effluent, which is wastewater that comes from the plant’s production of zinc.
At the time, AZP officials told News 13 that the strict permits protect the Broad River even when there’s a violation. An AZP spokesperson said the permits have a safety range built in.
In 2020, regulators with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued AZP violations for shipping 765 tons of hazardous waste to two landfills not equipped to handle hazardous waste. AZP is listed as a large quantity Hazardous Waste operation. The report shows 27 trucks went to a landfill outside Charlotte. The additional trucks went to a landfill near Spartanburg, South Carolina. Signs at the facility state the public is prohibited from going in.
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