Polluters pay, and then keep fouling the air anyway

Regulators crack down on hundreds of pollution-pumping Northwest firms, but even when companies cooperate it can take years to bring emissions under control. Here, from a consortium of local and national investigative reporters, is a first-ever look at who pollutes and how much they pay for the privilege.

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Saint-Gobain's Verralia plant turns old glass into new bottles.

Regulators crack down on hundreds of pollution-pumping Northwest firms, but even when companies cooperate it can take years to bring emissions under control. Here, from a consortium of local and national investigative reporters, is a first-ever look at who pollutes and how much they pay for the privilege.

Saint-Gobain Containers is hardly a household name in Seattle. But its hulking plant on West Marginal Way, in the heart of the Duwamish industrial area, is a key link in the regional recycling chain: It turns used glass into new bottles. The company bills itself as a “world leader” in protecting the environment and declares itself "committed to a sustainable future for not only our business – but the planet.” It is the largest maker of wine bottles in the United States.

But Paris-based Saint-Gobain, which operates the Duwamish plant under its Verallia brand, can claim another distinction: It has racked up more fines for violating the federal Clean Air Act than any other operation in the Northwest — $962,000 in the last five years, according to government records.

And Saint-Gobain's plant is just one of dozens of facilities around the Northwest, many of them concentrated in the Puget Sound region, whose emissions government regulators have struggled for years to rein in, in many cases long after official deadlines have passed. The EPA has tagged Saint-Gobain and scores of other firms in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho as “high priority violators” requiring special scrutiny; the current list numbers 39. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has placed four Northwest sites — King County’s West Point sewage treatment plant, the Jeld-Wen window and door plant in Klamath Falls, Oregon, the Montana Refining oil refinery in Great Falls, Montana, and Saint-Gobain's Duwamish plant — on a special “watch list” of facilities with “serious or chronic violations” that “may result in significant environmental and public health impacts.”

In Saint Gobain’s case, about 120,000 people live within three miles its plant. The nearest communities, South Park and Georgetown, have relatively high minority and low-income populations. A recent study found that airborne toxics in South Seattle exceed regulatory caution levels by up to 30 times (though most are believed to come from cars and trucks). The $962,600 in fines the firm paid over a five-year period works out to about $527 day — small change for a company that reported earnings of $688 million from its diverse global operations in the first half of this year, and for a plant whose 384 employees produced 1 million bottles each day in 2010. “It is outrageous that they can do a cost-benefit [analysis] on our communities, putting our lives at risk, all the while lying through their teeth about their greenwashing environmentalism,” said Bang Nguyen, an activist with the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, which campaigns for better air quality in South Seattle.

Verallia/Saint-Gobain would not agree to an interview or show us its massive production complex, but it issued a 456-word prepared statement   boasting of awards it has won from the EPA for energy conservation. “Our company is proud of its commitment to meet all of its environmental compliance obligations, including the Clean Air Act,” it reads, noting that the Seattle plant is serving as a national pilot for new pollution-control technology.

But it's also a prime example of widespread ongoing violations of the Clean Air Act. The news site EarthFix, in collaboration with InvestigateWest and Northwest News Network, has developed a list  of leading air polluters in the three Northwest states, as part of a nationwide investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and National Public Radio. Of the 772 facilities in the Northwest that have been cited for violating the Clean Air Act in the last five years, 175 have been fined. The fines ranged from a total of $100 at one plant to Saint-Gobain's $962,600.

While Saint-Gobain’s record of citations and fines set it apart, it is far from the only chronic violator. Its 94 citations over the last five years make it the second-most-cited firm in the region; the Hampton Lumber Mill in Darrington, Washington leads with 103 citations, though it's only been assessed $233,000 in fines. Steve Zika, the CEO of Portland-based Hampton Affiliates, says that since purchasing the mill in 2002 his company has installed equipment that reduces pollution and generates wood-fired electricity for the local utility. He adds that the violations and penalties resulted from technical challenges presented by the new equipment and operational changes occasioned by the depressed lumber market. Hampton now has a settlement agreement with regulators spelling out actions to fix its problems.

Shell Oil’s refinery in Anacortes also ranks among the five Northwest sites receiving the most fines, along with two relatively unknown firms: Chemco, which produces fire-resistant wood in Ferndale, and Berry Plastics in Kent, which makes plastic bags. All five of the Puget Sound region's large oil refineries rank among the top 20 in fines.

The volume of fines assessed shows that local regulators are delivering results, says Laurie Halvorson, director of the Legal and Compliance Department of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency: “If we were content to write them letters and say, 'Gosh, we’d like you to do better,' we’d not be doing our job.” Fines, she says, are “part of how you get people’s attention.” Penalties are determined in part by how long a violation has persisted. Large fines “can represent people dragging their feet or being in denial for some period of time,” says Halvorson. “Our job is to say we’re not going away and you have an obligation to meet these permit requirements and we take that seriously.”

But the Saint-Gobain plant is a good example of how harmful pollution can continue for years before regulators bring a company into compliance. Saint-Gobain reached an agreement with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to clean up its Seattle plant in 2007, but failed dozens more smokestack tests over the next three more years. Finally, in 2010, it got its emissions under the legal limit. “We believe all concerned are pleased with the progress which has been made," the company said in its prepared statement, "despite many technical challenges associated with the plant serving as an EPA pilot for innovative new ‘cloud chamber’ technology designed to reduce sulfur oxides (SOx) and particulate matter (PM).”

Most of the failed stack tests involved “particulate matter” — soot particles about one-seventh the width of a human hair that can lodge in the human lung. There, the EPA says, they can cause“effects on breathing and respiratory systems, damage to lung tissue, cancer, and premature death. The elderly, children, and people with chronic lung disease, influenza, or asthma, are especially sensitive.” Saint-Gobain also legally spewed nearly 400 pounds of lead compounds into South Seattle’s air last year. Lead is a neurotoxin known to retard children’s intellectual advancement, and, at higher levels, to cause a number of other health problems in people of all ages.

In 2010 federal prosecutors charged Saint-Gobain with, among other transgressions, systematically failing to control pollution at 15 plants in 13 states, including the Seattle facility. Saint-Gobain did not admit guilt, but it agreed to pay a $2.25-million fine and spend another $112 million on pollution-control equipment.

These charges, filed in federal court in Seattle, are quite unusual; regulators rarely go to court to stop air air pollution. The CPI/NPR investigation found “evidence of a continuing failure by regulatory agencies to keep up" with emissions. "Records, some previously undisclosed, show the extent to which Washington [D.C.] is aware of the failure of states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on localized sources of hazardous airborne chemicals, known as air toxics, even when violations may have continued for years.”

The EPA is tracking about 1,600 “high priority violators” nationwide, nearly 300 of which have been in its sights since 2001 or longer. NPR and CPI used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain another, previously undisclosed EPA “watch list” of 383 serious or chronic polluters that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. These include commercial oil refineries, steel mills, pharmaceutical manufacturers, incinerators, and cement kilns, as well as military and municipal facilities. Only four Northwest sites made this list.

It's important to note that “high priority violators” like Saint-Gobain are not all currently breaking the law; EPA assigns this tag according to a complex formula “designed to direct scrutiny to those violations that are most important." And not every facility on the watch list remains a threat to public health. In fact, some never were. King County’s West Point sewage treatment plant is safely removed from populated neighborhoods and washed by winds off Puget Sound. But in 2008 plant operators discovered that four massive sewage-pumping engines were emitting more nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide than legally permitted. Pam Elardo, director of King County’s wastewater treatment division, was the plant's manager in 2008. She says even the nearest residents have nothing to fear: “It’s light years away from being a problem, given the location of West Point and the kind of winds they have." 

The county could have challenged regulators’ interpretation of the plant's permit, says Elardo. But after a year-and-a-half of discussions it opted instead to improve its treatment process so as to emit fewer pollutants. That will take years to achieve, however, because the sewage-pumping engines can only be taken offline during dry periods when less rainwater infiltrates sewer pipes.

In the meantime, Elardo assures visitors to Discovery Park, which surrounds the West Point plant, that they needn't worry about the emissions: “It’s far worse to stand next to a roadway.”

And that’s where Saint-Gobain's bottle plant sits, right next to Highway 99.

Bonnie Stewart of the Oregon Public Broadcasting-affiliated news site EarthFix contributed to this report.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Robert McClure

Robert McClure

Robert is co-founder and executive director of InvestigateWest. At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert exposed a major weakness in the Endangered Species Act and deficiencies in Puget Sound restoration efforts. His reporting on hard-rock mining won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism.