Investigative Post: String of Violations at Buffalo Plant

by / Mar. 28, 2019 2am EST

The former American Brass plant on Military Road in North Buffalo keeps getting cited for federal and state environmental and safety violations.

The plant, now owned by the German company Aurubis AG, is over a million square feet and home to 650 workers. It produces about 160,000 tons of metal each year for use in cars, batteries, ammunition, and zippers. 

Last year, state regulators fined the company $35,500 for 15 violations involving the mishandling of hazardous waste. The violations resulted in the US Environmental Protection Agency declaring Aurubis a “significant non-complier” between 2016 and 2018.

Three times since 2011, including as recently as earlier this month, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration also cited the company for a total of seven “serious” worker safety violations. In total, OSHA imposed $37,260 in penalties for violations involving employee injuries and unsafe working conditions.

State regulators also told Investigative Post they are taking unspecified enforcement action after they learned in November of two spills of hazardous waste that the company failed to report.

While company and union officials said that the problems are currently under control, some neighbors expressed concerns when they learned about the company’s track record.

“Healthwise, it concerns me,” said Edward Rogalski Jr., who has lived near the plant for almost four decades. “If I could tell the company one thing, it would be to straighten up!”

Sulfuric acid spills

The Buffalo plant was built in 1906 and is the company’s only production facility in the United States. It’s located in a residential area across the street from the William J. Grabiarz School of Excellence, a public elementary and middle school. 

Last November, the state Department of Environmental Conservation inspected the plant and found the company hadn’t reported spills of fluid containing sulfuric acid in February and July of 2018. In total, about 1,100 pounds of wastewater was spilled.

“That’s definitely concerning. If there are spills, we have to know about them,” said Jen Williams, who lives across the street from the plant.

The state told Investigative Post it is taking enforcement action against the company in response to the spills, but would not comment further.

Sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive substance, can pose a threat to workers if improperly handled. This could include serious burns, bronchitis or eye damage. The inhalation of sulfuric acid as a mist or aerosol has been correlated with laryngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer.

Worker safety

OSHA has taken enforcement action three times against the company. In 2011, three workers were hospitalized for burns after molten copper and water erupted in a steam explosion. OSHA fined the company $15,000.

The company was also fined $9,000 in 2015 for three violations involving unsafe working conditions. The violations included not having safeguards to prevent exposure to electrical shock and failure to guard employees against a “rotating shaft.”

Last June, the company was ordered to pay $35,500 in response to what the DEC termed 15 “alleged violations” that included mislabeling hazardous waste, improperly storing hazardous waste, not properly training employees on how to handle hazardous waste, not having emergency plans in place in the event of a hazardous waste accident, and failing to take steps to prevent incompatible substances from mixing. These violations dated back to 2016.

This month, the company was penalized $13,260 for an incident in November where employees “were exposed to amputation hazards.”

Company officials said in an email statement that it’s committed to working with the DEC to become compliant with the law.

“The department’s inspections are a helpful tool to identify issues to address, and to help ensure that our operations maintain compliance,” the company said. 

Dean Washburn, president of United Steelworkers Local 593, said the union is working with the company to ensure that employees are working in a safe environment.

Some of these violations come during a profitable year for the company, which reported one of its best financial years in history last year.

The Buffalo plant had been considered as part of a potential sale of the company’s flat-rolled products business to Wieland-Werke AG, also a German company. European antitrust authorities blocked the transaction in February, however. The company said it might seek another buyer.

Sara Jerving is a reporter with Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on issues of importance to Western New York.