Monday’s bench trial in the case of Commonwealth V. River Metals Recycling, which has been ongoing since January 2021, was canceled due to negotiations between the city and the company on investments to “improve the quality of life for residents.”
News of an agreement was announced in a Newport news release on Aug. 11 ahead of the previously scheduled Aug. 14 bench trial. Though the trial was canceled, representatives for the city and River Metals Recycling, Newport residents, and city leaders were in Campbell County District Court Judge Cameron Blau’s courtroom to hear the next steps. Both parties explained to Blau that they were working on an agreement, and a status hearing was scheduled for Sept. 5.
The status hearing will review a written memorandum of understanding between the parties. If both parties agree and the changes are implemented, the years-long court proceedings will end.
According to the news release from Newport, the city will work with River Metals Recycling, also known as RMR, to address concerns regarding the operation of the company’s Newport facility.
The new equipment outlined in the release is a pre-shredder that will allow for the reduction of processing noise and mitigate the risk of combustion during the shredding process as well as a fire rover, which will have the capability to detect emerging hot spots and further reduce the risk of fire throughout the facility. The release said that the initial investment by RMR will exceed $5.5 million and add operating costs of over $600,000 annually.
“RMR has committed to making significant investments in advanced technologies that will enhance their processes and the quality of life for local residents,” the news release said.
Newport City Commissioner Ken Rechtin, who was in the courtroom Monday and has been outspoken about RMR’s business practices in the past, called the agreement a win.
“I think this is a significant win,” Rechtin said. “This has been five years in the making. It’s been a long time.”
Annette Kitchen moved to the Clifton neighborhood in Newport in 2013 and was also in court on Monday. Kitchen has been heavily involved in efforts to get RMR to change its daily operations since around 2019 when the Clifton Neighborhood Association hosted RMR representatives to talk about the explosions at one of their meetings.
Kitchen said that at the time that RMR agreed to certain things that would help prevent explosions, such as a pre-shredding process and supervisory oversight before an item went into the hammermill, among other things. She said things went silent for about three months and then resumed.
This time, Kitchen said she is cautiously optimistic about the agreement between the city and RMR.
“I feel the residents have been collateral damage for RMR seamanship all these years,” she said. “Wasting valuable taxpayer resources on various questions of judicial oversight. Simultaneously, this could be the beginning of RMR outreaching to the Clifton Neighborhood. But we need to see action.”
Rechtin said the devil is in the details as this moves forward. He said he believes that city staff and RMR will go through a series of back and forth to draft an agreement, which Rechtin said needs to include the timelines for installation of the equipment, and that timeline should consist of when they’re going to order the equipment and when it’s going to be installed.
“The other thing is, operationally, I believe the city has to see that that equipment will be fully interfaced with the shredder so that there won’t be any bypass,” Rechtin said. “So, there isn’t a potential of an explosion bypassing this piece of equipment that should mitigate the problems.”
Kitchen said at the status hearing that she wants to see hard dates set up to a six-month timeframe to implement the changes since things like a pre-shredding process have been discussed since 2019.
According to Rechtin, this agreement falls on the heels of an administrative conference held by the Division of Enforcement regarding four notices of violation by the Division for Air Quality. This is separate from the court proceedings for noise violations.
The letter from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet shows four dates, one from December 2022, February 2023, April 2023, and May 2023, in which open burns occurred at RMR, leading to notices of violation.
The letter states that RMR had two plans of action they could take. One was to pay $75,000. The second option is an Agreed Order (which is legally binding and enforceable in Franklin Circuit Court) that would outline a Corrective Action Plan and an “agreed upon civil penalty.” The letter states that the case will be closed once the penalty is paid or the Corrective Action Plan is implemented.
The letter states that RMR must respond by July 25. There is no public documentation showing what RMR’s response was.
“It’s wonderful that RMR acknowledges that they’ve created this problem, and it’s really an acknowledgment of the explosions and of the fires and those types of occurrences down there—in that they’re beginning to address those things,” Rechtin said.
Rechtin said he believes the fire rover would address the environmental aspect of RMR operations rather than noise. He added that the pre-shredder would help with the explosions and regular operational noise.
“If this thing proceeds, in my opinion, if this makes it to the final line here—we have an agreement, and it’s put in place, I think this is a win for Clifton (neighborhood), a win for the west side of Newport. It’s a win for the citizens of Newport. And it’s a win for the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, and additionally, it’s a win for RMR.”
The Sept. 5 status hearing will be held in the Campbell County District Court at 9 a.m.