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Know the West

Plant pays hefty fine for polluting the air


POCATELLO, Idaho - At the foot of the bare-faced Portneuf Mountains, plumes of white smoke issue from a cluster of smokestacks at FMC Corp." s phosphorous plant, often obscuring the view of motorists passing by on Interstate 84. And charcoal-colored slag flanks the factory's sides.

The 1,400-acre Pocatello plant, first opened in 1949, is North America's largest producer of elemental phosphorous, a substance used in toothpaste, Jell-O, soft drinks, baking powder, cereal and household cleaners.

What the public hadn't known about until now is that FMC had an ugly secret. For several months in the fall of 1996, a fire in a settling pond sent poisonous gas into the air.

The gas, consisting of phosphine and sodium cyanide, may have wafted into the Fort Hall Bottoms, a sacred hunting area used by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, or down into the city of Pocatello, both just several miles away. Untold numbers of ducks and geese flew into the settling ponds and died, and the deadly gas also may have killed livestock.

Now, FMC must pay a $11.8 million fine - a national record - for its offense and for a host of other environmental violations. The global corporation must also spend $170 million over the next four years to bring all of its Pocatello industrial operations into compliance.

FMC had fought the Environmental Protection Agency for five years over a list of hazardous-waste violations before settling the dispute in October. John Schmidt, director of the Portneuf Environmental Council in Pocatello, says he's mostly pleased with the settlement.

"It's been painful to watch a company acting totally irresponsibly, and regulators that weren't doing their job," says Schmidt, a computer systems manager. "The result is one of the biggest messes in the country."

Deborah Reyher, the lead Department of Justice attorney who negotiated the case for the EPA, says it took five years and two rigorous inspections in 1993 and 1997 to force FMC to begin cleaning up its act. She says the hefty fine should serve as a warning to industrial polluters, particularly mining companies.

"The mining industry has relied on lobbyists and political interference in Congress for far too long instead of getting their environmental house in order," she says.

FMC spokesman Arlen Wittrock insists the company has turned over a new leaf. "FMC has gotten into some prolonged arguments over waste issues that we regret," Wittrock says. "We want to focus on the future."

Not good enough

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribe declined to sign onto the EPA-FMC agreement, saying it's flawed. The factory lies on the southwest corner of the reservation. While the tribe has been hesitant to bully FMC about environmental problems because 70 tribal members work at the plant, these days, the tribe isn't backing down.

"One of the biggest problems is that the consent decree allows FMC to keep producing hazardous waste for the next four years," says Richard Thompson, tribal environmental liaison. "And then, after they build a treatment plant, they will send other pollutants out the stack of an incinerator. The tribe did not want an incinerator out here."

Poisonous gas was first detected during an overflight by tribal Superfund regulator Susan Hanson. She saw one of FMC's ponds burning "white with fire." It continued to burn for two months.

The tribe's hunting area in the Fort Hall Bottoms has been marred, Thompson says, and people are afraid to go there.

Now, under EPA orders, FMC has installed wastewater pond monitors and alarm systems designed to prevent wastes from flaring up. FMC also is required to clean up its air emissions and spend a minimum of $1.65 million for an independent health assessment of tribal members.

FMC's cleanup plans also call for phasing out the discharge of liquid hazardous waste to waste ponds and by the year 2002, either burning the waste in a high-temperature melter, or in a sophisticated lime treatment.

Portneuf Environmental Council's Schmidt said he is troubled by the long time-frame for cleanup activities, because he does not trust FMC Corp. or the EPA. "The thing that has been driving me through the whole thing are the children in our community," said Schmidt, the father of a 7-year-old girl.

"I saw kids being born and realized that these kids would be five or six years old before anything was being done about this, and I thought the regulators were being totally careless to allow this to go on."

Stephen Stuebner reports from Boise, Idaho.

You can contact ...

* Arlen Wittrock, public affairs, FMC Corp., P.O. Box 4111, Pocatello, ID 83205 (208/236-8201);

* Misha Vakoc, Environmental Protection Agency public information officer, 1200 Sixth Ave., Seattle, WA 98101 (800/424-4372, ext. 8578);

* Hobby Hevewah, Richard Thompson or Susan Hanson, Shoshone- Bannock Tribes, P.O. Box 8, Fort Hall, ID 83203 (208/238-3700);

* John Schmidt, Portneuf Environmental Council, 8862 Maple Grove Lane, Pocatello, ID 83201.