NEWPORT, Ky. — When Jeff Zemanek moved to Newport's Clifton neighborhood, he figured there would be some level of noise, given the city's urban density. But he wasn't prepared for one particular sound that often drowns out all the rest.
"It scares the heck out of you," he said, referring to what he and other neighbors say is the frequent "unavoidable" booming of explosions -- sometimes three in a single day -- coming from a nearby scrap metal plant that dismantles, demolishes and crushes metal items, including cars.
Zemanek lives uphill from River Metal Recycling on Licking Pike, which is now the defendant in a class-action lawsuit claiming the plant is being negligent in allowing the explosions to occur and has created safety hazards and caused nearby property values to drop.
The explosions are caused when an item being crushed contains gasoline that had not been emptied beforehand, such as the fuel tank in a motor vehicle.
"We had an explosion a couple weeks ago where that's how we were woken up," Zemanek said.
The plant "failed to exercise ordinary care to assure that gasoline explosions do not occur," claims the lawsuit, which began in Campbell County Circuit Court before being bumped to federal court and then back to the county again. The explosions "create noise that jeopardizes and degrades the quality of life," the suit reads.
City Manager Tom Fromme said his staff is monitoring the situation. It's a problem the city has known about for decades and is actively working on an ordinance to address.
"Over the past 40 years, the number of explosions varies based on the amount of scrap that is being processed on the site," he said. "We continue to monitor them to determine if any violations of existing ordinances occur. In the event a violation happens, a citation would be issued."
Residents like Amanda Smith say they're frustrated.
"It kind of sideswipes you," she told WCPO. "And some of them, it really kind of makes you feel like your windows are going to blow out, something is going to collapse."
Zemanek and Smith are part of a committee working with the city to bring a stop to the explosions and address other concerns with the plant, such as air pollution and property damage.
"I've noticed in new construction I've had in my home where the drywall has shifted and things in a short period of time," Smith said.
"The other thing is...the air that we're breathing," Zemanek said. "Yesterday, I smelled plastic almost all day long after the explosion."
And, both neighbors agree, there's a psychological impact, as well.
"When you're woken straight up out of bed at 6:40, 6:38, 6:45, 7 o'clock in the morning, haven't even had a cup of coffee, it brings extreme anxiety to me. And I'm not a person with anxiety," Smith said.
Zemanek agreed, saying no matter how many times he's heard it before, he "jump(s) out of bed, and then you're shaking for a few minutes." The explosions have become something that's just not avoidable.
"Going through this and then trying to continue your day and get into your work, and it's really hard to concentrate. When is the next one going to come?"
In the end, Zemanek and Smith would be happy if the explosions just weren't so loud.
"I'd love to seem them move... but, if nothing else...conceal the shredder so it's enclosed, and they don't get the open-air compression that you get here," Zemanek said. "I think they could put up some big barrier walls to not only camouflage it, because it's an eyesore, but also for containment of sound, too."
River Metals Recycling general manager Neal Coulardot provided WCPO a written statement Wednesday afternoon in which he disputed the claim that the explosions present a safety or environmental hazard:
"A couple of the neighbors are suing River Metals and we do not comment on active litigation. However, we would like to state that River Metals has been recycling metals at its Newport/Wilder location for decades and is committed to be a good neighbor. In the recycling of metals there can be occasional combustion events. River Metals has a formal plan to keep these at a minimum. These events do not cause safety or environmental harm. River Metals is in full compliance with laws, regulations and permits for the facility. In fact, it is a national leader in recycling and is one of the few recycling facilities in Kentucky to earn the OSHA SHARP certification that recognizes excellence in occupational safety and health."
Oral arguments were heard in Campbell County Circuit Court last month. Since then, the judge has not filed any orders in the case.