Labor union and Ponca Nation representatives picketed the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality on Thursday, claiming the agency is going easy on a Ponca City plant that has environmental violations on its property.
The Paper, Allied Chemical and Energy Workers International Union said the state environmental agency has identified "wastewater system" and other violations on land belonging to Houston-based Continental Carbon Co., but is not forcing a cleanup.
"We think the DEQ is keeping people in the dark because they know people would squawk if they knew about it," said Rick Abraham, an environmental consultant for the union.
Some of the protesters met with department representatives Thursday for two hours about their charges.
"I think it was a constructive meeting, and they listened to all our concerns," Abraham said after the meeting. "There are some issues that the DEQ is taking a second look at, and it sent a message to the company that a lot of people are watching."
Department spokesman Michael Dean said the environmental agency is not coddling Continental Carbon.
"There is not one shred of truth to any of their allegations," he said. "They are either completely false or are statements that are taken out of context."
One of the union group's main charges is that, although the state environmental agency issued a violation notice concerning apparent hydrocarbons oozing near Continental Carbon's wastewater lagoon, the agency then issued another order that dismissed this violation after a closed-door meeting with the company.
Abraham complained Thursday that the company's proposals to deal with the pollution aren't in the public record at the environmental agency.
Dean's position is that the leaking-lagoons violation has not been dismissed but is under investigation.
"Right now we're trying to decide if they're leaking or not," he said. "If they are, they have to be fixed."
Dean said the environmental agency has also found Continental Carbon in violation in the "land protection" area -- solid waste and hazardous waste -- and is under investigation for a complaint in the air-quality emissions area.
He said most agency tests in the area have been negative so far.
The Continental Carbon plant, which makes carbon black used in tires and other items, has no connection to the Cevolution Conoco Carbon Fibers plant that is starting up operations in Ponca City.
Continental Carbon is owned by China Synthetic Rubber Corp. and Taiwan Cement Corp., which is said to be controlled by the powerful Koo family of Taiwan. Continental Carbon has plants in Phenix City, Ala., and Sunray, Texas, in addition to the Ponca City location.
Ron Sherron of the Ponca Tribe Environmental Agency said there are at least 11 tribal households in the lagoon area, some as close as 150 feet to the alleged contamination.
He said pollution problems keep those residents indoors and unable to sell their property, and that tribal members and other area residents have complained for years about air pollution and respiratory problems.
According to the union, the city of Columbus, Ga., has sued Continental Carbon over pollution allegedly caused by the company's Alabama plant.
The Thursday meeting, Dean said, was the fourth time the environmental agency has met with union members on the pollution issue.
He said the union's interest in the pollution issue is related to a ongoing labor dispute between the union and the company, involving a lockout of union workers.
"This is about using the DEQ as a tool to beat up their company," Dean said. "They don't realize that we're an environmental agency, not a labor- relations agency."
Todd Carlson, chairman of union Local 5857, denied that charge.
"The pollution issue is much bigger than (the lockout)," he said.
A year ago Continental Carbon locked 86 union workers out of the 120- worker Ponca City plant, Carlson said. Temporary replacement workers have taken the place of union members at the plant, and that the company's only offer since the lockout would have resulted in about 20 union members keeping their jobs.