Battling the Steel Baron

Sleeping regulators, the world's fifth-richest man, and some very sick kids. Mittal won't be an easy fight.

LTV couldn't die.

When the steel company declared bankruptcy in 2000, no one believed it could be the end. Those furnaces had been hot since steamships cruised the Cuyahoga River and women with parasols strolled down Euclid Avenue. You might as well have told people the lake was about to dry up.

Politicians gave speeches. Unions grudgingly offered benefits cuts. "Save Our Steel" was the sacred motto. If the shooting blue flames next to I-77 were to die, you'd expect men, women, and children to climb atop one another with lighters, trying to get them going again.

Yet while the company kept more families afloat than a cruise liner -- 3,200 Clevelanders depended on an LTV paycheck -- this ship's captains had taken the only life rafts. While management blamed their troubles on unfair foreign competition and begged for federal welfare, CEO William Bricker cashed out $660,000 in bonus pay just before resigning. Two weeks before Christmas, the furnaces went cold. There were so many pink slips that they had to be dispensed from a pushcart.

For the first time since 1912, the land next to the Cuyahoga River was as quiet as western prairie. Acres of corrugated rust sat like rotting farm equipment.

"It was like a bomb went off," says Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman. "That's like if you got rid of every auto plant in Detroit. Or if you went to New York City and said, 'No more theater.'"

The vultures soon arrived. Wilbur Ross, a New York financier, decided to put a few coins into the rusty old slot machine of the steel industry. He bought the plant's skeletal remains along with some other Rust Belt carcasses, resurrecting them as International Steel Group in 2002. The company was just like LTV, only with bariatric surgery. By acquiring the plant at a bankruptcy sale, Ross avoided taking on any of LTV's crushing pension obligations. Then, with half the workforce of LTV and a cheaper union contract, he returned the plant to profitability. Then he flipped it.

The buyer was a man named Lakshmi Mittal, the Bill Gates of steel. Akin to something you'd see on a Christian Children's Fund commercial, Mittal's childhood was spent in an isolated Indian village with no running water.

Yet his adult life has been all about bling. Mittal is now the world's fifth-richest man, according to Forbes. His company, Mittal Steel, owns plants from Buffalo to Kazakhstan and produces 10 percent of the world's steel. He paid $127 million for a London mansion. For his daughter's wedding, he threw a party at the Palace of Versailles, the former home of France's Louis XIV. Final bill: $55 million.

In 2005, Mittal bought International Steel Group to officially become the largest steel company in the world -- 165,000 employees strong. You wouldn't expect the guys at the United Steelworkers hall to respect a boss who gets chauffeured around in a $300,000 Maybach. Yet Cleveland workers slept easier, knowing that a true steel man was in charge.

In June, the Cleveland mill made its first international shipment in five years, exporting 12,000 tons of hot-rolled coils on a freighter bound for Belgium. The news was the equivalent of a moon landing for the city.

But not at Ohio Citizen Action. In case you haven't noticed the thousands of yard signs sticking up around town, the environmental group says Mittal is poisoning residents. And it wants Mittal to "Clean Up for Real."

The Slavic Village homes overlooking the plant have a beautiful view of hell. Flames shooting 20 feet in the air. Glowing vats of iron ore. Sparks like the Fourth of July. A choking smell like rotting garlic. Nowhere does the Cleveland motto "You've gotta be tough" apply more than here.

"I've seen orange clouds. I've seen green clouds, red, big black clouds," says Sue Cochran, a tattooed mom with a baby monitor clipped to her belt and a rottweiler pawing at the screen door. She's lived here for five years, during which she's developed sinus problems so severe she's had two surgeries.

"When I told [my doctor] where I live, he told me I should move," says Cochran. But with her family's finances stretched thin, that's not happening anytime soon.

The air here can literally choke you. On particularly dusty days, you'll find 11-year-old Craig Denham with a breathing mask strapped to his face to deliver his asthma medicine. Sometimes it gets so bad, he has to take steroids.

Craig's the third generation of his family to grow up in the shadow of Big Steel. He lives with his grandma, his mom, his aunt, and his cousins in a cute little home with a cute little yard, on a street where cute checked out a long time ago. Behind a flimsy backyard fence, you can see marshmallowy smoke billows mixing with the cumulus clouds.

Craig's aunt, Donna Levandowski, has a jaw as strong as a bear trap and eyes as turquoise and calm as the Caribbean. Today, after having some teeth pulled, she's talking like a ventriloquist. But some things need to be said. Like how both of her kids also have asthma. And how her daughter, Joie, is only eight and already getting migraines like her mom. Or how three-year-old Jimmy comes inside from playing in the grass with red blotches all over his body.

"Look," says Donna's sister, Denise, pulling the kid aside like a mama lion. She lifts up his shirt to reveal a rash on his stomach. She turns his head around to show off the splotches on his neck. She holds his hand up to display the red bumps on his knuckles.

"We're worried about the kids' health and our health, living here, breathing this shit in all the time," says Donna.

The sisters were so worried they took their kids to a clinic for a blood test. Jimmy and Craig's blood contained off-the-chart levels of arsenic, a by-product of steel-making. Craig's was almost four times the normal level. A doctor told the sisters not to worry; it could have come from eating fish. But there was a problem with that theory: The kids don't eat fish. And the children across the street have almost the same problems.

Jeff and Arlene Green fled East 55th and St. Clair three years ago, trying to escape the thugs. Their home on Independence Road was out in the country compared to their old neighborhood. They had butterflies, raccoons, wild birds.

Then Mittal took over. One day, about a year after they moved in, Jeff looked out the window and thought he saw snow. The flakes bounced off the ground. "Snow don't bounce," he said to Arlene. When Jeff went outside, he could feel thousands of tiny metal particles hitting his skin.

Since then the family lives with their windows closed to protect them from the soot that covers their home. There are no more wild birds, except for the dead ones Jeff occasionally scoops up from their backyard, their wings still extended "like they was in flight and they just fell," says Arlene.

This neighborhood is no place for living things. The couple's three young children come in from playing with feet so black, Arlene has to use a Brillo pad to get them pink again. Her two-year-old boy has had colds and respiratory problems since he was born. Her other two frequently break out in hives all over their bodies.

"My poor kids -- sometimes they're covered so bad they look like little strawberries walking around," says Arlene.

Dr. Kathy Fagan of Case Western Reserve's center for environmental health sees kids like Arlene's all the time. While most environmental hazards are invisible and frequently impossible to pinpoint, this is an exception. Fagan says there's no doubt that Mittal is to blame.

Children -- as well as the elderly -- suffer the most from the plant's toxic fallout, says Fagan. They play outside, splashing in puddles where the funk settles, then touching their faces and mouths. And their tiny organs are extra sensitive to chemicals.

"The kinds of things we've been seeing range from symptoms such as headaches and nausea and shortness of breath and rashes to lung irritation, aggravation of asthma, and aggravation of underlying lung diseases such as emphysema and [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]," says Fagan.

Who knows what could be in store for these kids down the road? Studies tracking the health problems of steelworkers show a range of unpleasant fates, such as heart disease, lung cancer, and Parkinson's-like mental deterioration.

Critics might raise the obvious question: You live next to a steel plant. What did you expect? Complaining about the air is sort of like moving next to Blossom and calling in noise complaints.

But the people of Slavic Village aren't blessed with the economics of choice. And evacuating an entire portion of the city so one company can operate isn't the best public policy.

For the Greens, East 55th suddenly looks like Westlake, compared to where they live now. They'd love to leave, but no one wants their house. When they tried to sell it, the offers didn't come close to covering their investment. So they send the kids to grandma's. Her place ain't much, but at least you can breathe.

Neighbors wouldn't be so mad if Mittal at least pretended to care. But plant manager Terry Fedor won't return phone calls or meet with them since they've aligned with Citizen Action. Instead, the company set up a hotline last year called Good Neighbor Matters, which you can call anytime to talk to someone who will essentially tell you you're freaking out over nothing.

When Denise called to complain about the soot, she was told she'd have to eat a spoonful to be harmed. When Donna called about a black cloud drifting toward her house, the plant's environmental manager, Rich Zavoda, told her that was impossible because of the direction of the wind, though she was staring right at the thing.

"They act like we're just making this stuff up 'cause we ain't got nothing better to do," says Denise.

Last winter, a German shepherd died on Mittal property, just down the street from Arlene Green. Not wanting her kids to see it, she called Zavoda and kindly asked him to remove the dog. He said he would have it done in two weeks. When the snow melted the following spring, the dog was still there. The warm weather rotted out the carcass before workers finally came to take away the skeleton. "It was nothing but just bones," Arlene says.

Mittal's newsletter touts its environmental stewardship as if it's some sort of wildlife garden. Last year, the company planted tall switchgrass, trees, and shrubs in an attempt to trap airborne dust. That didn't work. The latest newsletter trumpets the fact that a nest of peregrine falcons lives in an empty conveyor tower.

"We have to admit a steel mill isn't the most cuddly place in town," it reads, "but it seems to suit these peregrine falcon nestlings just fine."

When Scene called for an interview, Terry Fedor forwarded the request to a company spokesman in Chicago, who said neighbors should stop blaming the mill for their problems. "Those communities lie next to very busy interstate highways, other plants," says Dave Allen. "We have perfectly adequate systems in place to control the emissions."

But when asked to list those systems, Allen comes up empty.

Looking at the gray paint on Sue Cochran's house -- it's supposed to be white -- "adequate" isn't the word that springs to mind. "I'm sure there's some device they can put on those stacks to catch some of that," Cochran says. "Put a damn pantyhose on it!"

It's the sheer unfairness of it all that gives Citizen Action's Liz Ilg her game: Lakshmi Mittal plops down cash for 20-page wedding invitations encased in silver, yet he can't spend a little money so kids can play outside.

If you think about it, Ilg may have the shittiest job in Cleveland. Most people couldn't care less about the crap that Mittal releases. This is Cleveland, after all -- where pollution is as common as corrupt politicians and losing football.

But Ilg -- who studied at American University, taught English in Austria, and worked as one of Ohio Citizen Action's door-to-door grunts before heading the Mittal campaign -- is surprisingly upbeat. She explains complex air pollution regulations as if she'd just crammed for a test the night before. Through oval glasses and locks of curly blond hair that look like ramen noodles, she debriefs her soldiers with the eagerness of a camp counselor before a canoe trip.

They've been knocking on doors, passing out leaflets, organizing neighbors, and cold-calling for donations for three years now. The place is as dirty as the day they started.

"Everyone who works for the campaign knows it's not going to happen overnight," Ilg says over coffee at Starbucks. "My supervisor once said, 'The struggle for change never happens easily.'"

At least Ilg's accomplished one thing: She'll never receive a Christmas card from Terry Fedor.

You could say Mittal had a lot riding on its acquisition last year of European steel giant Arcelor. About $38 billion, to be exact. So when Citizen Action sent a letter to the European Commission -- the body responsible for green-lighting the merger -- asking the head commissioner to come to Cleveland to meet with neighbors, Lakshmi's son, Aditya, decided to show the environmentalists whom they were dealing with.

Aditya flew European business reporters across the Atlantic on one of Mittal's private jets. They landed in Chicago to tour a Mittal plant there. But first there was a gourmet dinner, a night out at a trendy jazz club, and a stay in a swank hotel. As for Cleveland? They just flew over the city. The merger went through just fine.

Other stunts -- such as when Citizen Action and angry neighbors showed up at Fedor's office with a boxful of straws -- so that he could suck through them to feel how hard it is for nearby residents to breathe -- seemed more about catharsis.

"There's pretty much a shotgun approach," says spokesman Allen. "Anything that reflects negatively on our company, they collect and disseminate. Anything that reflects well on our company, they ignore."

Allen's absolutely right. And Citizen Action does it with a passion. Through their door-to-door campaign, they got more than 300 doctors to write Fedor to express concern about the mill's health effects. Fedor fended them off like computer spam.

"A myopic focus on our plant won't solve the problem," he wrote back in an e-mail to the doctors.

Still, other plants around the country have at least tried to be less of a nuisance. Many have "baghouses" -- huge, vacuum-bag-like contraptions that collect dust and gases from the blast furnace. Not Mittal. The Cleveland plant's environmental technology hasn't changed much since the '70s.

Even the equipment Mittal is required to have may not work. Ilg hired a former steel insider to look over mounds of documents Mittal filed with the Ohio EPA. Considering the company and the government agency involved, the investigation uncovered just what you'd expect.

The insider, who refuses to be named and would talk to Scene only through e-mails sent through Citizen Action, did a double take when he looked at a 1991 EPA permit, issued to the mill for changes made during the '80s to double production of its blast furnace, a huge cauldron of glowing iron. LTV also wanted to further tweak the furnace to increase the flow of molten steel.

Normally, a project of that size would have forced the dinosaur-aged plant to install environmental protections under the federal Clean Air Act. The plant was supposed to upgrade its smokestack filter -- called a scrubber -- to deal with the heavy bump in fumes. To do otherwise would be akin to outfitting your crappy Honda Civic with a school-bus engine, but keeping the same rusty muffler.

Yet LTV did just such a thing. On its permit application, the company's engineers calculated the increase in pollution as only minor, despite the obvious enormity of the project. But the numbers were good enough for the Ohio EPA. The plant got its permit.

Such is the nature of environmental law in Ohio. The state EPA is still playing by the rules of the Industrial Revolution, acting more as a subsidiary of business than a watchdog. The agency gave its approval to a developer to build a massive shopping center on a toxic-waste site in Garfield Heights ["Tomb With a View," January 10]. Now it's letting IMG build a 1,100-acre resort on a former industrial site containing the same cancer-causing agents that Erin Brockovich fought against in California ["Badlands," August 1].

In Mittal's situation, at least neighbors can clearly see what's killing them. So can the EPA. Laughably, the agency takes pollution readings by sending scientists to look at the smoke coming out of Mittal's stacks, after which they try to guess how much of the sun is being obscured.

For Ohio companies, having the EPA on your back is as frightening as having Blockbuster call about a late movie. In October 2005, the Cleveland Division of Air Quality, an EPA contractor, tried to cite Mittal for excess pollution, claiming the company had violated the terms of its 1991 blast-furnace permit.

Yet a Mittal lawyer cleverly noted that its EPA permit was so badly written that it was "not practically enforceable." In essence, while the permit specified how much more Mittal could increase its pollution, it never noted the pollution's starting level.

George Baker of the Division of Air Quality admits his department may share the blame. The permit "probably could have been written better," he says. "Once in a while we do miss something."

Hoping to appeal to real regulators, Ilg presented her findings to the federal EPA in Chicago, which agreed to investigate. Mittal has turned over heaps of internal documents, yet it could be months before the EPA makes a decision. News of the inquiry even hit the Wall Street Journal.

But the environmentalists know not to celebrate early. A Mittal plant in Indiana was cited by the EPA last August for not having the proper permits for its coke ovens -- furnaces where coal is burned down to a component used to make steel. A year later, no fines have been levied, no action taken.

It's no wonder spokesman Allen isn't too concerned about the present inquiry. "We'll see" is his only comment.

On a bright Saturday morning in Tremont's Lincoln Park, Ilg shouts directions to her troops over music from a community production of Shakespeare.

Volunteers are given clipboards, spray bottles filled with organic cleanser, and white rags silk-screened with Citizen Action's ever-familiar war cry: "Mittal Steel: Clean Up for Real." They head down to the street to scrub black soot from houses. When they've gathered enough rags, they'll assemble them into a quilt to display at the Tremont Arts Festival.

The group, led by German immigrant Ina Roth, wanders down Fruit Avenue, where dilapidated shacks intermingle with condos straight out of The Jetsons, and pit bulls bark through fences at coiffed shih tzus. The street used to be home to families of steelworkers, hard-knuckled Russkies and Poles. Poking up at the end are the green copper domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Church, where portions of The Deer Hunter were filmed. Just across the freeway is the mill, blowing ghostly plumes into the air.

After visiting just a few houses, the group has a bagful of charcoal-black rags and a few e-mail addresses to add to Citizen Action's mailing list. But you can detect the disappointment. Nobody seems to share their outrage.

At one house with a little flower garden and a statue of the Virgin Mary out front, a round man comes out to greet the environmentalists. He's lived in this house all his 59 years, his mother for every one of her 80. You can plainly see the black film covering the wood siding of his home. But he doesn't.

"Go ahead," he tells Ina when she asks permission to go to work with the rag. "I'm not sure how much you're going to get."

Ina scrubs for a few seconds and returns with a rag as black as a Metallica T-shirt. "If this is on the side of your house, then it's also in your lungs," she tells him. "Think of the children."

The man eyes her with polite acknowledgment, then goes back to chatting with Mom on the porch.

Therein lies the problem of being green in Ohio. How do you explain to everyman the dangers of chemicals that he can't pronounce? Or tell him how a company like Mittal flouts environmental regulations so complex, you'd need a $500-an-hour lawyer to decode them?

The rest of the day is filled with similar moments. One woman with tattoos and an imposing dog says she worries more about crime than the steel plant. Another man proudly shows off the century home he restored from scratch, complete with lush vegetation out back to obscure the smokestacks. Rubbed along the red brick exterior of his home, the rag comes off as white as Tide.

Birds, birds everywhere. It's a recurring theme in a slick PR video Mittal produced last January, just as Citizen Action was filing papers with the EPA.

A bald eagle nesting at a Mittal plant in Chicago, set to the music of a patriotic string symphony. White herons flying with wings spread. Ducks splashing in waters just offshore of towering blast furnaces. One steelworker is shown dropping a crab cage in the water next to a plant. Another holds up a jar of the water Mittal discharges. "If I had a goldfish, it would be in here," he says.

"I grew up in the shadow of steel mills," says Keith Nagel, Mittal's director of environmental affairs, standing on a golf course in the shadow of a Mittal mill. "As a child I remember my parents telling me stories of how my grandmother would hang clothes inside, as they would get too dirty if she hung them outside."

But those are the old days, says Nagel. Mittal is now committed to protecting the environment "every minute of every day."

Over at Ron Skudrin's house in Slavic Village, Mittal's cameras don't dare go. Skudrin shows a reporter his windowsill. It's covered in a fine metallic powder. He just cleaned it yesterday. If you don't have air conditioning, it's either steel dust or heat stroke -- you gotta pick.

The Skudrins remember not being able to hang up clothes outside too. Now, 40 years after they moved into their Slavic Village home, they still can't. But they live with it. There's a Citizen Action sign out front -- not because they believe the fight is worthwhile, but because Denise Denham is their niece. Ron doesn't have the energy to care anymore.

"The mill is dirty. It's always been dirty," he says, shaking his head. "It will never be clean."