EPA: U.S.Magnesium wastes endanger workers, families, birds

By Judy Fahys
The Salt Lake Tribune

A Utah magnesium plant that for years ranked as the nation's worst polluter appears headed for a new tally: the Superfund list.
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans next week to propose U.S. Magnesium for the agency's cleanup-priorities roster. Hazardous chemical waste at the company's Tooele County processing plant, the EPA warns, is putting workers, their families, waterfowl and the environment at risk.
    Superfund status would allow the EPA to order U.S. Magnesium to pay for a multimillion-dollar cleanup. And although the move comes nearly a year after a federal judge threw out much of the EPA's $1 billion lawsuit against the company, the cleanup proposal is "not retaliation," said Gwen Christiansen, an environmental scientist who works on the agency's Superfund National Priorities List.
    "We want to make sure [plant] wastes are disposed of in ways that will protect human health and the environment," she said.
    An EPA fact sheet says the hazards include dioxins, metals, acidic wastewater, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and hexachlorobenzene (HCB). Waste chemicals, it notes, cause cancer or other health problems, such as diabetes and immune disorders.
    U.S. Magnesium hasn't been formally notified about the potential listing, but it began registering its objections Wednesday. The company accused the agency of failing to follow its own public processes and of incorrectly reading the science and the law.
    "Protecting the environment and our people," said company President Mike Legge, "must be part of every business decision we make."
    U.S. Magnesium, about 40 miles west of Salt Lake City, topped the nation's worst-polluter lists back in the 1980s. But, after spending about $50 million on improvements, it has slashed hazardous emissions that, in 1989, reached 119 million pounds.
    Now the plant falls short of the nation's top-100 toxic polluters and is fifth on Utah's list. In 2006, it reported nearly 4.4 million pounds of toxic releases.
    The company and the public will have 60 days to comment on whether the 4,525-acre site should be added to the Superfund list. Utah now has 24 Superfund sites in various stages of cleanup.
    While the EPA's Superfund office sifts through public comments in the coming months, it is possible that the agency's legal arm will revive the $1 billion lawsuit that began nearly eight years ago. Recent court fillings free the EPA to appeal last fall's rulings by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson.
    Benson largely sided with the company, which said Congress granted the magnesium plant an exemption from the nation's hazardous-waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Worried that the ruling could set a precedent in similar cases, the EPA might try to have Benson's ruling overturned.
    The company also was the target of a $1.5 billion bankruptcy-trustee suit brought on behalf of investors who claimed they weren't properly informed about the pollution lawsuit.
    In addition, the agency, the company and its employee union agreed in 2005 on additional steps that must be taken to protect worker health. U.S. Magnesium noted that a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health evaluation of worker health on exposure to the hazardous chemicals found that while "workers had measurable dioxins, furans, PCBs and HCB in their blood . . . the blood levels were lower than those associated with observable health problems."
    "Raising unfounded public concerns about worker safety after entering into such an agreement," the company said, "is very inappropriate."
    U.S. Magnesium also challenged the EPA's assertions that birds were dying after coming in contact with contaminated areas. It called the statements "fictitious and an irresponsible representation."