When the wind blows eastward across Utah's Great Salt Lake, which is to say most of the time, a long yellowish plume of chlorine often drifts from the stacks of a giant magnesium factory on the desolate west side, across the saline waters, fouling the view and sinuses of anyone in its path. Upon first sniff, downwinders wonder who spilled the Clorox.
30 miles to the south, in the pleasant small town of Grantsville, a
bus comes through several times a day to ferry workers to and from
that massive plant. It's not an easy bus to miss. You can smell it
For Tooele County, Utah, the jobs pay
well - $12 to $17 an hour. But the constant bath of chlorine that
envelops workers can discolor their cars' paint jobs, leave workers
with brittle "swimmer's' hair and cause headaches and respiratory
problems. The workers who make it past their first few days learn
to cope, often by making light of working conditions, such as the
times when the caustic chemicals get so thick their skin begins
stinging. That's when they say the "bees' are
Such is life under the influence of the
Magnesium Corp. of America's 120-acre processing plant in Rowley,
Utah, which, for the second consecutive year, has earned the
distinction of being not only the country's largest releaser of
chlorine, but also the largest industrial air polluter in America.
MagCorp released nearly 56 million pounds of toxics to the air in
1994 - the latest year for which figures are available - and
MagCorp plant manager Ron Thayer says he expects his plant to be
the nation's leading air polluter in 1995 and 1996 as
"We don't dispute that,"
Thayer says. "Those are our numbers."
"numbers' Thayer refers to are contained in the latest edition of
the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Releases Inventory, an
inch-thick annual portrait of industrial pollution in America that
reads like a trashy beach novel for toxic waste
The latest TRI figures - they're always
two years behind, so these are for 1994 - tell Westerners plenty
about who is fouling the land, air and water in the
In TRI we learn that six of the top 20
companies with the largest toxic releases to the land - usually in
the form of enormous slag piles - are smelter operations in the
West: ASARCO in East Helena, Mont.; ASARCO in Hayden, Ariz.;
Kennecott Utah Copper in Magna, Utah; Phelps Dodge Hidalgo in
Playas, N.M.; Cyprus Miami Mining in Claypool, Ariz.; and the
Phelps Dodge Chino Mines in Hurley, N.M.
learn that while the Rocky Mountain West is not often associated
with big polluting chemical refineries, the Coastal Chem site in
Cheyenne, Wyo., is ranked as the nation's fourth largest disposer
of toxic waste by underground injection. Coastal Chem pumped over
20 million gallons of chemicals beneath the ground - less than half
the amount of big DuPont plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, but
still enough to rank it eighth in total toxic releases
Want more arcane
What facility is the largest "federal"
polluter in the West?
That would be the Naval
Petroleum Reserves facility in Tupman, Calif., one of 15 sites in
the West among the Top 50 government polluters. Another fed in
those ranks is, of all things, the Federal Correctional Complex
(that's a prison) in Florence, Colo., which released 90,000 pounds
of toxics in the process of, we are told, making
Within this weighty volume of charts
and number, or more likely, on its computerized version, anyone can
find, say, a favorite polluting pulp mill, smelter or refinery, or
the nation's most polluted ZIP code - won't that make some Chamber
of Commerce proud! - or the company emitting the most neurotoxins
and ozone depleters in all 50 states.
Al Gore likes it so much - the veep released the new TRI numbers
last June at a White House ceremony - and some of Congress' least
enlightened members want it disemboweled. Such has been the life
history of this controversial but uniquely democratic
The Toxics Release
Inventory was created in 1986 in the wake of the 1984 Union Carbide
accident in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 3,500 people and
acutely injured tens of thousands more.
requires some 23,000 facilities in 20 manufacturing industries to
report their release of 341 chemicals, in 22 chemical categories,
to the air, land and water, and by underground
This somewhat obscure but powerful
piece of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act,
which only passed the House by one vote, has become not only the
best barometer of industrial pollution in America, but also a
useful tool for prying information out of stonewalling
corporations. It also can focus public attention on a polluting
company and arm activists.
The TRI has become
indispensable to hundreds of groups, from environmental-justice
activists to doctors, lawyers, school principals and insurance
companies. Many chemical company officials credit TRI with speeding
up the search for lower-pollution technologies, while labor
activists have used TRI to broaden management's understanding of
power," says Robert Wiygul of Denver, managing attorney for the
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, who has used TRI to challenge the
siting of hazardous waste sites. "TRI is one of the most important
statutes on the books."
been incredibly helpful to us," says Lorraine Granado, director of
the Cross Community Coalition in Denver, Colo., which successfully
used TRI figures to show that their north Denver community had been
burdened with polluting industries. The coalition not only defeated
a proposal to locate a medical waste incinerator in its community,
which is 72 percent Latino, it also pushed Denver to adopt an
industrial zoning code that takes into consideration how much
pollution a neighborhood already suffers from.
In Richmond, Calif., where in July 1993 General Chemical
inadvertently released a mist of sulfuric acid over an eight-mile
area and sent 24,000 people to hospitals, several community and
labor groups used TRI numbers to sue the firm. The company now
allows safety audits performed by the community's own expert, a
concept unheard of five years
"I would say that in at
least two dozen major campaigns over the last several years, TRI
has been essential to achieving victories for the community," says
Richmond activist Denny Larson. "We've linked TRI numbers with race
and poverty in Richmond. And we've shown how IBM was the number one
ozone-destroyer in California and the nation. We use it on a daily
But what do all the numbers really tell
Is living downwind from MagCorp worse than,
say, living downstream from a gold mine or worse than breathing
Mexico City's air for one hour? Can we compare factories across the
nation, or even across town, and make any sound judgments about the
danger they pose to communities? This is the conundrum that TRI
"TRI gives you
information as a starting point," says Paul Orum, editor of Working
Notes on Community Right-to-Know, a Washington, D.C., newsletter.
"But there's nothing in TRI that says this much exposure to a
certain chemical will have this health effect. We're still sorely
lacking in a public-health infrastructure that can tell people the
impact of toxics to which they are exposed."
Where TRI is often the most helpful to communities is in
identifying potential problems. If, for example, a community health
study has identified clusters of cancer or birth defects, TRI may
be able to isolate the facilities that were releasing carcinogenic
and mutagenic chemicals. Even then, TRI is best used as a guide or
model, not a smoking gun.
Despite its loopholes
and limitations, TRI is often credited by community activists and
industry alike with doing more to reduce industrial pollution in
America than any other piece of federal legislation.
Since 1988, the first year of TRI reporting,
overall reported toxic releases have declined some 44 percent,
according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet TRI doesn't give a full picture of a
factory's total chemical use or production, or of those chemicals'
effects on worker health. There are more than 70,000 chemicals used
in commerce today, and the latest TRI reported on only 328 of
"A definitive TRI," says
Paul Orum, "would also include air toxics from our carpets and
walls, and from consumer products like cellular phones, and from
the disposal of products, like the mercury in batteries."
But TRI's largest oversight by far is that it
hasn't included every industry or facility that pollutes. If a
company has fewer than 10 employees or processes less than 25,000
pounds of a certain chemical, they're usually off the hook. So are
automobiles, trains and planes. And only since 1993 have federal
facilities, such as military bases, been
Still missing are coal-burning power
plants, electric utilities, commercial hazardous-waste treatment
centers, petroleum storage terminals, chemical wholesalers, and, in
a Grand Canyon-size loophole courtesy of the Reagan administration,
the metal-mining and coal-mining industries.
That will change soon. Al Gore announced that by December the EPA
will expand TRI to include all those industries, adding 6,400 more
facilities and 300 more chemicals. (Industry is lobbying heavily
against the expanded TRI, and, of course, all bets are off if
flourishes today, it barely escaped with its life back in 1985. The
Reagan White House, allied with the chemical industry and some EPA
officials, were united in opposing so-called Right-to-Know laws
that would require industry to more fully inform communities about
chemical hazards. But after the devastating Union Carbide accidents
in Bhopal and in Institute, W.Va., prompted some states to draft
their own laws, Congress passed a version for the
"The opponents said
(our) bill would be more effective than Communism in shutting the
country down," recalled former Minnesota Rep. Gerry Sikorski, S.D.,
now a Washington lawyer.
TRI was never voted on
by itself. It was contained within the Emergency Planning and
Community Right-to-Know Act, which was defeated easily in a House
subcommittee chaired by TRI opponent John Dingell, D. But a
parliamentary procedure allowed the bill to be voted on by the
"The debate was
intense and the lobbying furious," recalls the Environmental
Defense Fund's Bill Roberts, who at that time was an aide to former
New Jersey Rep. Jim
"We were down 211 to
212," Roberts remembers. "Everything stopped for a moment, and then
someone switched their vote, and thank goodness George Brown from
California, a supporter, was holding the gavel. He closed the vote
immediately. Down came the gavel. We had won 212 to 211. It was one
of the most dramatic experiences I had in my career there."
TRI's debut was memorable. Years before the
first report came out in 1989, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., enjoyed
throwing around estimates that chemical companies were annually
releasing as much as 85 million pounds of toxic chemicals to the
air. The chemical industry, in turn, blasted Waxman and whined
about scare tactics and innuendo.
Then, in a
modest press conference at the EPA, the first TRI figures were
unveiled to the public.
The chemical industry
figures showed it released several billion tons of toxic waste.
Shocked, and groping for an explanation, the chemical companies
quickly changed strategies. They no longer denied the pollution,
but said it wasn't that harmful; and they promised major
One company, Monsanto, knew that
its first TRI numbers were going to be so unflattering that it
issued a pre-emptive press release before the 1989 TRI report,
promising to cut toxic emissions by 90 percent. Many companies
It is now clear that TRI's power
has never been in the threat of big fines or jail time, only in the
threat that every CEO seems to viscerally comprehend - really,
really, bad publicity.
foresight, Congress required the TRI data to be made available to
citizens by computer - the first U.S. law so designed. This means
that when the report is released by the EPA in Washington, it also
is available on-line to thousands of activists, company officials
But public access alone isn't
what made TRI so powerful. What made the TRI a news media hero was
that the EPA, with some prodding by reporters, broke down the
mountain of numbers into simple-to-read charts and graphs. This
makes it possible for hundreds of newspapers - even timid TV
stations - to boldly announce which company is their state's or
county's worst polluter. And that stigma doesn't fade very easily,
despite the increasing efforts of corporate squads of image-fixers.
The damning numbers, of course, come straight from the companies
"TRI put many
corporate CEOs in a very awkward position," says Bill Roberts,
legislative director for the Environmental Defense Fund and one of
TRI's intellectual fathers. "It had a fascinating effect, something
I've never seen another piece of legislation do."
USA Today environmental reporter Ray Tyson,
whose TRI stories are probably the most widely read in the country,
says that when companies know they're going to post big pollution
numbers, his phone starts
"The lobbying (by
industry) is not particularly subtle," Tyson says, "especially if
companies know they will be the top polluter or in the top 10.
We've had a number come by to offer their help in "interpreting"
the data. Some even went over my head to my bosses to question our
need to publish it." (To their credit, his editors haven't
When Gore released the 1994 figures,
he seemed pleased that industrial pollution - at least on paper -
continues to decline, but a closer look at the 8.6 percent
reduction from 1993 to 1994 shows that almost all of the
improvement comes from just two fertilizer plants in
This isn't to minimize the
significant reductions made by companies that have invested
hundreds of millions of dollars in new technologies and pollution
safeguards, but the TRI numbers often reflect what have become
known as "phantom reductions."
huge reductions trumpeted by industry reflect pollution that has
simply been redefined, recycled or recalculated - never actually
removed from the environment. A Citizens' Fund survey reported that
only 13 of the top 50 facilities reporting reductions between 1988
and 1989 could point to specific programs to control pollution.
For example, every year many companies
vigorously lobby Congress and the EPA to remove or "de-list"
certain chemicals from the list they have to report under TRI. It's
not hard to see why. If chlorine were ever de-listed, the MagCorp
plant in Utah would look about as ominous as "Wally World." Not
long ago the chemical acetone accounted for huge portions of some
companies' TRI releases; then it got de-listed - despite protests
that in combination with other chemicals it may increase one's
cancer risk. De-listing allowed companies to retroactively remove
their acetone numbers and make their previous TRI reports look
Some reductions are achieved by using
new math. Contrary to our logical assumptions, the TRI numbers are
not a direct measure of pollution, that is, they aren't like
odometer readings on a car. They're only estimates - complicated
projections based on pollution formulas involving variables such as
temperature, time and chemical reaction. They can and have been off
by millions of pounds. But when companies arrive at new ways to
figure their pollution, the numbers never seem to go up - always
On the other hand, some companies may have
legitimate gripes when they say the TRI numbers don't treat
Say you're DuPont, and you
have four chemical refineries on the Top 10 list for total toxic
releases. You learn to accept this because you have huge plants,
but what if, hypothetically, you've reduced pollution dramatically
over the years by spending millions on state-of-the-art equipment
and on a per-worker basis your pollution numbers are the best in
the business? And what if the Acme Sludge Co., which is one-tenth
your size, is located right next door and hasn't installed a
pollution device since the Korean War? Who still ends up looking
bad in the TRI reports?
That's partly the
media's fault, says a big TRI fan, Ralph Nader: "Newspapers don't
break down the numbers like they should to make it more
TRI rankings also don't
discriminate about the relative danger of chemicals. The company
that discharges a million pounds of ammonia to the ocean looks a
lot worse than one that dumps a thousand pounds of lead or mercury
into a river, though the latter has committed a far more grievous
Similarly, some plants may
not pose as great a threat to public health as others, simply
because of location.
The massive chlorine
releases of the MagCorp plant in Rowley, Utah, merit scrutiny, but
unlike dozens of chemical refineries in the South whose plant gates
are sometimes within a hundred yards of clotheslines and back
porches, MagCorp is surrounded by a 30-mile buffer of desert and a
near-lifeless salt lake between it and the closest town.
"If, as a society, you decide
that you want to have a plant that produces magnesium," says Dwight
Bird, an environmental engineer for the state of Utah who is
reviewing MagCorp's pollution permit, "there aren't a whole lot of
better places to have it."
however, don't go down well with MagCorp-watchers like Chip
"That attitude is not a
whole lot different from the idea we had not long ago, that oceans
were a great place to dump things," says Ward, a local librarian
and environmental activist. "Every polluter on earth thinks the
West Desert is a haven for doing things that wouldn't be tolerated
closer to people. And I think MagCorp helped set that precedent."
In the polluter-friendly 104th Congress, TRI
looked as though it would get battered like a country mailbox. Bob
Dole and Sen. Bennett Johnston, D, whose home state of Louisiana
has the country's worst per-worker pollution totals, sponsored a
"reform" bill that would have reduced by 90 percent the number of
chemicals industry must monitor on its TRI reports. Other bills
would have crippled or simply de-funded the whole
The business crowd is going after it,
says Nader. "They see that TRI is effective."
Fueling the assault has been corporate PAC money. Citizen Action
analyzed the contributions of 100 business PACs that represented
companies affected by TRI and its Right-to-Know legislation. Those
100 PACs gave $3.7 million to members of Congress, according to
Citizen Action, and 86 percent of it went to lawmakers who voted in
July 1995 to weaken the Right-to-Know law.
while the Chemical Manufacturers Association continued an
advertising campaign on television about its Responsible CARE
program, which casts industry as a caring and credible steward of
the environment, it was lobbying hard for every amendment that
would cripple TRI. The trade group also sued the EPA in 1996 in
federal court to prevent the agency from expanding the TRI list of
chemicals. The Chemical Manufacturers lost the
For now, TRI survives and looks
surprisingly strong. Clinton and Gore have both mentioned it in
speeches, and in a recent poll for the National Wildlife
Federation, 78 percent of voters agreed that requiring companies to
report on every toxic emission to the air and water is worth doing
- even if the costs of doing so are passed on to the
Even natural enemies such as Idaho
Sen. Larry Craig, R, who is usually partial to the mining industry,
have apparently found other targets. According to a staffer, Craig
has no immediate plans of derailing TRI.
could change, however, any time an anti-regulatory Congress decides
the public already knows too much about Big Business and decides to
restore the cozy secrecy the nation's biggest polluters once
demanded - and got.
Selcraig is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He can be reached by