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SCOTT G. WINTERTON, DESERET NEWS
Magnesium Corp. of America emits more air pollution, mostly clorine, than any other U.S. company.

It's not exactly an honor list. In fact, industry bosses cringe whenever their companies make the Toxic Release Inventory — a catalog of the nation's worst polluters compiled annually by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"For businesses, it is typically the kind of list you don't want to be on," said Cal Alexander, vice president of operations for Becton-Dickinson, which makes medical devices at its Sandy plant.

Becton-Dickinson's Sandy plant has tried to avoid the list by changing the chemicals it uses from those that harm the environment to those that are less damaging. For instance, the company no longer releases ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical used to sterilize the medical devices. Now, the company contracts for the sterilization process with a New Mexico firm that has state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment that captures most of the ethylene oxide gas before it is released into the atmosphere.

"We did not just ship the problem to New Mexico," Alexander insists. Instead, the New Mexico company offered a cleaner alternative.

"We chose the high road," he said. "We are a medical company. We think of ourselves as a company that helps people. We like to be thought of as a clean industry."

Becton-Dickinson is now trying to phase out another solvent that is linked to global warming. And it's making good strides.

"We're getting real close," Alexander said. In 1993, the company replaced dangerous, solvent-like Freon used as a lubricant on medical equipment with a chemical that is less harmful. And by 2002, the company will switch to an even cleaner substitute that doesn't have near the impact on ozone depletion.

"Industry, in general, is struggling to find substitute chemicals that work as well," Alexander said.

The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce its pollution, and it has paid off environmentally. The Sandy plant is among the top 10 companies in North America with an environmental certification. "We were the first medical device company in North America to achieve it," Alexander said. "It is our measure of social responsibility to reduce our waste."

But a host of other Utah companies are still struggling.

Two make the list every year and are at or near the top of the nation's worst polluters. Magnesium Corp. of America emits more air pollution — chlorine mostly — than any other company in America.

And Kennecott makes the list because of releases of 33.9 million pounds of various toxic materials — mostly natural byproducts of copper mining — to the air, land and water.

Since 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency has required all manufacturing companies that emit pollutants to submit annual reports totaling the amount and type of emissions. In 1997, the types of industries required to report were expanded to include mining companies and power plants.

Mining companies like Kennecott are screaming foul because the materials being listed as toxic are usually nothing more than natural rocks being pulled out of the mountainside and left behind because they did not contain enough ore to be processed.

"The TRI is the most misleading inventory I know of," said Kennecott spokesman Louis Cononelos. "You move one rock and it becomes toxic. It makes no sense." Theoretically, the Toxic Release Inventory allows citizens to know the types of toxic substances released by companies in their neighborhoods.

In reality, "Knowing the pounds of exotic chemicals is not going to help people (assess the risks)," said Neil Taylor, an environmental scientist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "There are a lot of questions about what the numbers really mean."

A more important question, he said, is how the companies manage the toxic chemicals and whether they are allowed to escape the confines of the business properties and contaminate neighborhoods. That question is not addressed in the TRI, nor is information provided about the dangers of particular chemicals.

"Gross poundage doesn't mean anything in terms of managing risk," Taylor said.

Still, for all its flaws, the TRI is the only tool whereby the public can readily determine what kinds of toxins are produced by industry in their neighborhoods. But it's fairly complex and esoteric, and without advanced degrees in chemistry and epidemiology, the report probably doesn't mean much to an individual trying to assess environmental risks.

More than anything, the TRI has become a tool for state environmental regulators and health officials who can now compare and contrast pollution data with health dangers. For example, epidemiologists looking at clusters of cancers or rare diseases now have a "one-stop shop" for pollution data from nearby businesses.

Taylor said environmental regulators often knew that chemicals were being released, but until the TRI they didn't know exactly how much, nor specific types. In some cases, regulators did not have an inkling of certain releases until the TRI.

"More than anything, the TRI has changed company policy," Taylor said. "They are uncomfortable reporting the chemicals, they don't want to be on the list."

Still, Taylor cautions against putting too much stock in the TRI. For starters, there are smokestack-sized loopholes in the TRI reporting requirements.

Citing an obscure EPA report, Taylor says the TRI represents only about 1 percent of all the toxic substances released.

Companies with fewer than 10 employees are not required to report. Nor are companies that emit less than 10,000 pounds annually of any single toxic chemical, even if the total of all chemicals is well above the threshold. Furthermore, only manufacturers, power companies and mining operations are required to report.

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For example, hospitals operate medical waste incinerators, but they are not required to report. Nor are mom-and-pop dry cleaners or repair shops or auto body shops that use degreasers and solvents. And that has proven to be a vexing problem for state regulators.

"Chlorinated solvents were not managed properly in the past, and now we are finding them in shallow groundwater," Taylor said, pointing to a case where Salt Lake water officials are now treating a drinking-water well in Sugarhouse Park that has been contaminated with chlorinated solvents.

"Past disposal practices have created a lot of problems for us now," he said. "We have found they stay in the environment for a long, long time."


E-mail: donna@desnews.com; spang@desnews.com