FORT WRIGHT, Ky. — A Covington attorney who won a $4.75 million class-action settlement in 2004 over pollution at a Fort Wright plastic resins plant is now investigating new potential claims after an explosion at the same plant Monday night.
“One of the terms of the settlement was that the plant would take steps to be a better neighbor,” Paul Dickman said. “Doesn’t sound like they’ve done that.”
The plant’s owner, Minnesota-based Interplastic Corporation, did not respond to the I-Team’s questions Tuesday.
Dickman filed suit in 1997, alleging the former Filon-Silmar plant exposed its neighbors to odors and hazardous chemicals. The case ended in 2004 with a settlement on behalf of people who lived within a 2,000-foot radius of the plant at 3535 Latonia Ave.
The plant uses styrene and other chemicals to make polyester resins, which are then used to make plastic parts for boats, trucks, pools, spas and bridges. The explosion happened when 31,000 pounds of liquid resin began to harden inside a storage tank, said Fort Wright Fire Chief Stephen Schewe.
“When it was in that tank, the pressure for some reason had risen and it blew the lid off the tank,” Schewe said. “A small amount of product came out of that tank and caught fire.”
Interplastic executives arrived in Northern Kentucky Tuesday to investigate what caused the resin to polymerize, Schewe said. The chief is also hoping to learn what chemicals were emitted in the explosion and how much hazardous material left the site.
“It’s an industrial plant and it’s located right next to a residential neighborhood,” Schewe said. “So, you know they’re constantly under scrutiny because of these smells. I can tell you over the years they’ve taken many steps to try to mitigate these odors from leaving the plant.”
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Dickman said the plant was required to “vent all of their resin tanks through a thermal oxidizer” to reduce styrene emissions and the odors they cause. Dickman said those vents made a difference when newly installed, but his former clients “told me over the years it’s just progressively gotten worse.”
U.S. EPA records show styrene emissions hit a nine-year high in 2019, when the company reported the release of 15,505 pounds of the chemical linked to headaches, nausea, weakness and depression. That same year, an equipment failure at the plant caused a chemical release and shelter-in-place order, similar to the events of Monday night. Styrene emissions declined 15% in 2020 but still reached their second-highest level since 2011.
Despite all of that, the plant had no air pollution violations in the last three years. EPA records show Clean Water Act violations in 11 of the last 12 quarters. In June, the company paid a $10,000 penalty over zinc emissions to the Lower Banklick Creek, EPA records show.
But it’s the air, not the water that continues to worry Latonia residents.
“In the summer you smell it all the time,” said Gale Burton, who lives two blocks north of the plant. “You smell plastic burning. And it’s just a bad smell.”
Jamie Hensley moved to Latonia Avenue in 2016.
“Some months it’s worse than others,” she said. “Like it’s real intense, burnt plastic or a burnt rubber — gives you a headache, makes you feel nauseous.”
Schewe said odor complaints are common but difficult to enforce.
“Many times, when we get there the odors have already dissipated,” Schewe said. “We can’t pick them up anymore.”
Dickman said the 2004 settlement included a consent decree that calls for the Kenton County Circuit Court to maintain continuing jurisdiction over the case, so it might be possible for him to seek new remedies for residents without filing a new lawsuit.
“We will be moving forward with some sort of action,” he said. “What it is going to be is yet to be determined.”
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