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News: A Fighter to the End

Cancer claims a defender of the environment

By Stephanie Dunlap · April 4th, 2007 · News
  Ray Agee of Middletown was no scientist. But he was convinced the AK Steel plant near his home was imperiling residents' health, and he agitated for change.
Jimmy Heath

Ray Agee of Middletown was no scientist. But he was convinced the AK Steel plant near his home was imperiling residents' health, and he agitated for change.

By Maria Rogers

AK Steel is a Fortune 500 company. AK's neighbor, Ray Agee, was a disabled truck driver who wouldn't back down on his commitment to clean air.

Agee died of cancer March 20, less than two weeks after his diagnosis. What he accomplished before his death will be long remembered by environmental leaders and those who live and work near AK.

An active member of the Sierra Club, Agee took a lead roll in the "AK Come Clean" campaign in Middletown. The campaign was focused on the clean-up of homes, land and waterways surrounding AK Steel.

"He believed so strongly that the community voice mattered," says Susan Knight, national representative for the Blue-Green Alliance, a collaboration between the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club.

In 2000 the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against AK Steel to enforce provisions of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the federal law regulating facilities that manage hazardous waste. The state of Ohio, the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council joined the lawsuit.

The suit was settled last year.

Agee came to the attention of environmental activists because of the large number of complaints he filed with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency about what he believed was pollution affecting his neighborhood. Agee testified about his concerns in front of a group of lawyers and AK officials at various hearings and committees, Knight says.

Many of Agee's neighbors didn't approve, afraid Agee was causing trouble that would push AK to leave Middletown and cost people their jobs.

"He said, 'No, we have a right to clean air and jobs,' " Knight says. "He had to face his neighbors every day, and it took so much courage to do what he did."

As part of the settlement, AK Steel committed to clean up PCB-contaminated sediments from two streams that are tributaries to the Great Miami River and to remove contaminated soils from adjacent floodplains. The settlement provides for removal of PCBs from two major sections of Dick's Creek, according to the Justice Department.

PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- are mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals that have been shown to cause a variety of negative health effects.

As a child, Susan Roark, Agee's daughter, used to play in Dick's Creek. Today it's marked with warning signs not to enter.

"My dad said there were never any signs like they have now saying you couldn't be in there," Roark says.

Roark says she never doubted that her father would be successful in his quest for environmental change. She did, however, question his choice to live in the area surrounding AK Steel.

"I even asked him, 'If you know this is going on, why do you stay here?' " Roark says. "He said, 'Because this is where I grew up, and this is where I always wanted to come back to.' I was always trying to run him out of there, and now I realize ... that was his comfort zone, and unfortunately it happened to be next to AK Steel."

Chris Parker, an Ohio certified volunteer master naturalist who has lived in Middletown since 1967, remembers Agee's enthusiasm for environmental causes.

"Ray is a man of great courage and integrity and really heroic in his effort to communicate with the AK group relative to becoming more environmentally healthy," Parker says.

James Wainscott, president and chief executive officer of AK Steel, even visited Agee's home to talk with him, according to Knight. She says Wainscott sat in Agee's living room and watched videotapes Agee had taken of emissions from the plant.

"I think it was a very powerful experience," Knight says.

AK Steel's union employees had been locked out of the plant for over a year while contract negotiations were taking place. A contract was accepted March 15, and all eligible union members were to be back at work within 90 days.

All environmental negotiations were cut off during the lockout in order to honor the union picket line, Knight says. But she says AK has been moving forward in its efforts to comply with the settlement.

"Ray wanted to resume negotiations," Knight says. "He was very excited about that."

AK Steel reported in April 2006 that it had spent more than $370 million for environmental capital investment projects and compliance costs, including approximately $65 million to install new air emission controls on the ironmaking and steelmaking facilities at the Middletown Works and to address surrounding neighborhood issues related to air emissions.

"When fully operational, the new ironmaking and steelmaking air emission controls together are expected to capture about 900 tons of non-hazardous airborne dust emissions annually from the Middletown Works that otherwise would have resulted in offsite emissions," a company statement said.

Roark is proud of her father's contribution to the cause.

"If he set his mind to it, it always went through the end," she says. ©



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