Judge disciplines L-P

  Judge disciplines L-P

At a criminal trial last month in Denver, a federal judge fined the Louisiana-Pacific Corp. a record $37 million for breaking environmental laws at its Olathe, Colo., waferboard plant and for selling a product whose quality didn't meet the company's claims. The fine is the latest chapter in the plant's stormy history.

Louisiana-Pacific had already admitted to tampering with the factory's air pollution monitor and boosting production at night, when increased emissions were likely to go undetected by state regulators. The company also admitted it lied to the Colorado Department of Health about the number of times it violated its pollution permits (HCN, 6/26/95).

For local activists and environmental officials who have battled the plant since it was first proposed in the early 1980s, the latest judgment was welcome. "They paid a fine large enough to grab a lot of attention," said Marv Ballantyne of the Western Colorado Congress. "I'm glad for that."

The corporation pleaded guilty to 18 felonies and will pay $5.5 million to the federal government in Clean Air Act violations - the largest fine in the law's 28-year history. It will also donate $500,000 to seven government and nonprofit groups working to improve air quality, including the Delta County Air Quality Planning Committee and the Renewable Energy Trust of Denver.

The major part of the fine, $31 million, is for "a company ethic that encouraged cheating and lying to maximize profits," said Judge Dana Dulohery.

Louisiana-Pacific broke environmental laws at its Olathe operation from day one, said Ron Rutherford, the Environmental Protection Agency's senior environmental enforcement officer in Denver. In fact, the EPA did not know the factory existed until an agency official from Denver saw it during a fishing trip. After checking, he found L-P had not applied for a pollution permit.

"L-P was bringing all of its economic and political clout to keep the state at bay," he said. "It had a lot of influence with the state."

Investigations at Olathe were sometimes conducted by undercover agents dressed as farmers. Their findings led to further investigations at L-P plants across the country, revealing a pattern of ignoring clean air laws.

Now Rutherford hopes the restructured company will follow the law. But he isn't letting his guard down. "Just about every enforcement tool in the Clean Air Act was thrown at them, and finally the criminal suit got their attention," he said. "After 12 years, I'm still skeptical, so I'll be watching them closely."

* Dustin Solberg