By Ed Runyan
State Rep. Sean O’Brien, sitting in the audience at Warren G. Harding High School on Jan. 12, heard remarks from officials of GM Lordstown that made him pick up his phone and write a text message to Scott Nally, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
General Motors officials had just said that proposed limits on the amount of total dissolved solids the company could release into the Mahoning River would force GM to spend $8 million to build additional treatment facilities and $1 million annually to run them.
“I texted the director at the hearing,” said O’Brien, a Democrat from Brookfield whose district, the 65th, is in Trumbull County. “I said, ‘We need to talk.’ Then I arranged a phone conference.”
A couple of weeks after the hearing, O’Brien was on the phone with Nally, along with two representatives from General Motors’ corporate offices in Michigan and a representative from the Delphi Corp.
Both companies were concerned about the economic impact of the requirements, O’Brien said.
Company officials told the director about the types of systems that would be required to bring their discharges up to the proposed level.
“He more like listened. He was on a fact-finding mission at that time,” O’Brien said. “I think it shows he listened,” O’Brien said of Nally.
About two months later, the EPA issued the city of Warren’s wastewater treatment plant a new permit. The permit did not require the city to limit its discharges of total dissolved solids to 622 milligrams per liter, as the EPA had indicated earlier it would.
Instead, it required the city to monitor the water discharged into the river near the treatment plant, something the city had been doing already.
The new permit was a relief to the Tom Angelo, director of Warren’s wastewater treatment department, as well as to companies like GM, Delphi, Thomas Steel and others because it meant additional treatment measures would not be necessary.
Warren’s new permit did present problems for the city’s fledgling brine-water treatment facility, Patriot Water Treatment, however, and Patriot continues to work through those challenges.
O’Brien says he thinks the issues GM raised affected the EPA’s decision-making process because of the importance of GM to the Mahoning Valley.
“Part of it was putting the Cruze in jeopardy,” O’Brien said of the Lordstown-built car. Meeting the new water-quality requirements would have cost GM money that it doesn’t have to spend in other states, O’Brien said.
GM announced in August that the Lordstown plant will receive a $200 million investment to build the next-generation Cruze.
Angelo said he believes scientific reasons, more than political ones, explain why the EPA decided against setting specific limits on total dissolved solids in Warren.
Angelo said his department started testing water quality all along the Mahoning River, upstream and downstream from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, in November 2010. In fact, Warren even tests in Pennsylvania as far as the Ohio River.
“I think it was the hard data that showed that total dissolved solids in the Mahoning River never exceeded 500 milligrams per liter all the way to the Ohio River for one year,” Angelo said of why the EPA decided against specific total dissolved solids limits.
The EPA had argued that the 622 limit was necessary to comply with rules in Pennsylvania, since the Mahoning flows into Pennsylvania.
Angelo said the total dissolved solids in the river already met the Pennsylvania standard of 500 milligrams per liter, so he didn’t understand why the EPA felt it was necessary to set specific limits for the first time in Warren.
“We had the data to show that this wasn’t a concern,” Angelo said.
Enzo Cantalamessa, Warren safety-service director, said the total dissolved solids limit the EPA had proposed “could have had potentially disastrous effects” on businesses that discharge wastewater into Warren’s wastewater treatment plant. “It would have been nearly impossible to achieve.”