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Know the West

Crimes against workers

  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.

As 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 Robert Dugoni.
352 pages, hardcover: $26.
Free Press, 2004.