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Rhode Island fines Sims shredder operation for Clean Air Act violations

Johnston, Rhode Island, shredding operation has agreed to install pollution control equipment.

August 17, 2020

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) Director Janet Coit and Environmental Protection Agency Region 1 (EPA) say Rhode Island has reached a settlement in an enforcement action against SMM New England Corp. (SMMNEC), dba Sims Metal Management, a metal shredding facility in Johnston, for violations of the Clean Air Act. Under the terms of a consent judgment filed in Providence County Superior Court, Sims has agreed to install equipment to control the release of pollution that may be linked to cancer and severe respiratory illnesses and will pay the largest penalty ever assessed by the state of Rhode Island for violations of the state’s Clean Air Act.

"For too long, SMMNEC has not met its obligation to the people of Rhode Island to protect public health and the environment and keep harmful pollutants out of the air we breathe,” Attorney General Neronha says. “SMMNEC's operations in Johnston put Rhode Islanders at risk with uncontrolled emissions of dangerous, airborne substances.”

Neronha says the company “must install state-of-the-art controls and pay meaningful penalties” because of the alleged violations.  

The compliant alleges that SMMNEC failed to comply with the Rhode Island Clean Air Act by starting construction of a metal shredding operation without applying for a major source air permit and failing to install the required pollution control equipment for emissions of harmful pollutants.

According to the compliant, SMMNEC has been operating the shredder without the necessary permit and emission controls since 2013.

Sims operates a 7,000-horsepower shredder in Johnson. According to the Ag’s office, the shredder “generates enough heat to melt or burn the plastics, paints, surfactants and oils in the scrap metal materials, which causes harmful emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter (PM) and toxic air contaminants (TACs).”

The shredder temporarily ceased operating because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2018, EPA Region 1 initiated the first action against Sims by issuing a Notice of Violation alleging violations of the Clean Air Act and citing the company for its failure to obtain a major source permit and a Title V Operating Permit.

In 2019, RIDEM conducted independent inspections and found additional violations for Air Pollution Control Regulations 1, 5 and 7 (Visible Emissions, Fugitive Dust and Emissions of Air Contaminants Detrimental to Person or Property, respectively). RIDEM issued a Notice of Intent to Enforce on Aug.9, 2019, citing SMMNEC for the violations of the state's Air Pollution Control Regulations.

Also in August of 2019, the attorney general issued Sims a 60-day notice letter stating that legal action would be forthcoming if Sims did not agree to voluntarily resolve the violations. Since that time, the attorney general, RIDEM and the EPA say they have been working on a favorable resolution for the State while avoiding years of protracted litigation.

"DEM is pleased with the settlement reached in this important case and that our collective efforts with the attorney general and the Environmental Protection Agency will result in the company coming into compliance with Rhode Island's Clean Air Act," DEM Director Janet Coit says. "This negotiated settlement would not have been possible without the company's cooperation and its commitment to take responsibility for its actions. By avoiding costly and protracted litigation and negotiating an agreement that results in payment of substantial penalties and completion of supplemental environmental projects to improve air quality, we have ensured a good outcome for Rhode Islanders."

Sims shared the following statement with Recycling Today regarding the settlement:

“On [Aug. 12], Sims Metal Management settled a matter with the state of Rhode Island that has been in the works for some time. Sims Metal Management has worked cooperatively and in good faith with the state to obtain this resolution. This matter pertains to complaints about alleged air emissions from the Sims Metal Management shredder in Johnston, Rhode Island, which has not been in operation since April 6, 2020.

“As is typical for this sort of settlement, the settlement agreement (called a consent judgment) is filed with the court at the same time as the state files a complaint. The complaint is needed so that a court may have a basis to approve the settlement. It is worth noting that this case was about regulatory compliance, specifically about what type of permit this shredder needed. The issue here was our desire to be responsible members of the community—even though we continue to believe that we did not require the type of permit alleged in the complaint, we wanted to put this issue past us and focus on how best to go forward in Rhode Island in a COVID and post-COVID world.”

Dennis Deziel, regional administrator of EPA's Region 1 office, says, "This legal action will result in significant air quality improvements in Johnston. This is good news that will help ensure cleaner, healthier air for citizens in this area."

Under the consent judgment, Sims will pay a total penalty of $875,000 to the state and, if it does not meet the conditions set forth in the consent judgment, an additional $1.13 million in penalties. The penalty is divided into three parts: a cash payment, supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) in affected communities and a suspended portion.

The cash portion of the penalty requires Sims to pay $550,000 in penalties to Rhode Island over 18 months. The SEP portion of the penalty requires Sims to pay $325,000 to fund projects in Johnston and Providence: $200,000 to fund a project aimed at offsetting air pollution issues in the town of Johnston and $125,000 to address air pollution issues in the Port of Providence, where Sims Metal Management owns and operates another facility.

The $1.13 million balance of the penalty is suspended and will be waived only once certain conditions have been satisfied, according to a news release from the attorney general’s office.  

The state is requiring Sims to install emission control technology to stop further air pollution, including an air pollutant enclosure system to limit the amount of emissions that can escape when the shredder is operating. The emission controls required in today's consent judgment are consistent with what has been required in similar facilities across the country, including in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Illinois.

The attorney general’s office says Sims has agreed that upon restarting the shredder, it will immediately implement interim controls to limit further exposure to pollutants in the surrounding area until the new emission control system becomes fully operational.

Under the consent judgment, Sims has agreed to file a complete permit application with RIDEM within 90 days. In addition, the company is required to install particulate matter and VOC emission control technology within specified time frames or be required to pay suspended penalties.

"The bottom line is, we are not requiring that SMMNEC do anything beyond what they should be doing," says Neronha. "Enforcing compliance with Rhode Island's environmental laws isn't anti-business. It preserves Rhode Islanders' health, protects the state's natural beauty—one of our greatest assets—and levels the playing field for those businesses that do make the necessary investments in pollution control technology and follow the rules."