The filthy West

Toxics pour into our air, water, land

  • MagCorp near Great Salt Lake in Utah, at top of chart

    Jack Monson/Deseret News
  • Strikers at AMAX (now MagCorp) in 1988

    Robert Rice/Deseret News
  • Sketch of air pollution, top 20 polluters

  • Sketch: The report's clout comes from really, really bad publicity


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.

About 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 coming.

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 out.

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 well.

"We don't dispute that," Thayer says. "Those are our numbers."

The "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 wonks.

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 West.

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.

We also 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 nationwide.

Want more arcane data?

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 furniture.

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.

No wonder 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 law.

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.

The TRI 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 injection.

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 safety issues.

"Knowledge is 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."

"It's 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 ago.

"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 basis."

But what do all the numbers really tell us?

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 poses.

"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 them.

"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 included.

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 Clinton loses.)

Although TRI 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 nation.

"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 entire House.

"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 Florio.

"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 reductions.

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 followed suit.

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.

With uncharacteristic 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 and reporters.

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 themselves.

"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 ringing.

"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 waffled.)

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 Louisiana.

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."

Sometimes the 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 cleaner.

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 down.

On the other hand, some companies may have legitimate gripes when they say the TRI numbers don't treat everyone equally.

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 understandable."

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 environmental sin.

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."

Those sentiments, however, don't go down well with MagCorp-watchers like Chip Ward.

"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 program.

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.

And 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 case.

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 consumer.

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.

That 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.

Bruce Selcraig is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- An off-the-books polluter

- Top 20 polluters

- The Toxic West

- For more information ...

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