Environmental crimes are among the hardest to prosecute. That’s the message authors Joseph Hilldorfer and Robert Dugoni dramatically deliver in The Cyanide Canary, the true story of chemical contamination in southeastern Idaho. In the summer of 1996, 20-year-old Scott Dominguez, an employee at Evergreen Resources — a company that produced fertilizer from mining waste — climbed into a 25,000-gallon storage tank to clean out its sludge. The company’s owner, Allan Elias, assured him that the tank contained nothing but "mud and water." Instead, Dominguez was exposed to deadly levels of cyanide, and suffered irreversible brain damage.
After years of
playing a legal shell game with government officials, Elias was
finally convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison, the longest
prison term at the time for an environmental crime. His track
record of reckless hazardous waste management earned him a label
from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality as "a walking,
talking Three Mile Island."
The Cyanide Canary is also a
convincing cautionary tale for Idaho, a state that often revels in
its anti-federal government attitude. Local jurisdictions often
lack the will to pursue companies that import jobs. Yet the health
of those workers is often too easily tossed aside in pursuit of
profits. Without the existence of federal laws and enforcement,
there would be little recourse for the aggrieved.
federal prosecutor David Uhlmann stated in his eloquent closing
argument, "… no matter how industrialized our society, no
matter how much most of us care about worker safety, there’s
still some people who think workers are expendable and that their
lives do not matter." Perhaps as evidence of that, there is no
happy ending to the story: A $6 million judgment against Elias was
later thrown out in appeals court in 2003, and as the authors
write, "Scott Dominguez has not received a dime from Allan Elias."
The Cyanide Canary
By Joseph Hilldorfer and
352 pages, hardcover: $26.
Crimes against workers
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