In partnership with:
Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler
Saint-Gobain Containers bills itself as a “world leader” in protecting the environment. Its hulking south Seattle plant recycles used glass into new bottles – part of a noble effort to conserve resources, the company says.
“We are committed to a sustainable future for not only our business – but the planet,” the company says.
And yet Saint-Gobain’s Duwamish-area plant, operating under its Verallia label, has racked up more than $962,000 in fines for violating the Clean Air Act in the last five years, making the Paris-based company the most-fined toxic air pollution emitter in the Northwest, government records show.
Saint-Gobain’s plant on Highway 99 just north of the First Avenue Bridge is only one of dozens of facilities around the Northwest, and particularly concentrated in the Puget Sound region, where regulators have struggled for years to rein in pollution – often exceeding time frames that regulators themselves set as deadlines.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tagged Saint-Gobain and dozens of other Northwest firms in as “high priority violators,” meaning they deserve special scrutiny. And Saint-Gobain was even elevated to a special government “watch list” for facilities with “serious or chronic violations” that “may result in significant environmental and public health impacts.”
In addition to Saint-Gobain, three other Northwest plants – King County’s West Point sewage treatment plant, Jeld-Wen window and door maker in Oregon’s Klamath Falls, and an oil refinery called Montana Refining located in Great Falls, Mont. – are all on the EPA’s “watch list.”
Saint-Gobain has been slapped with some sizable fines. However, penalties totaling nearly $1 million over the course of five years don’t amount to much for an international glassmaker that reported a net profit of $688 million for the first half of this year alone. The fines for the Seattle plant amount to just $527 a day.
“It is outrageous that they can do a cost-benefit 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. About 120,000 people live within three miles of the plant.
The company would not agree to an interview or to show reporters their massive production complex, but issued a 456-word prepared statement boasting of awards the company 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,” Saint-Gobain said in its press release, which noted that its Seattle plant is serving as a national pilot for new pollution-control technology.
A regional list of leading Clean Air Act violators, developed by the news site EarthFix in collaboration with InvestigateWest and Northwest News Network, is part of a nationwide investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR. At a national level, EPA is tracking about 1,600 “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act. Of those polluters, nearly 300 have been considered a high-priority violator since at least 2001. The data show “evidence of a continuing failure by regulatory agencies to keep up,” CPI reported.
Of the 772 facilities in Washington, Oregon and Idaho that have received Clean Air Act citations in the last five years, 175 have faced fines. Total fines ranged from $100 at one plant to Saint-Gobain's $962,600.
The revelations about Saint-Gobain come on the heels of a recent study (pdf) that found airborne toxics in south Seattle exceed regulatory caution levels by up to 30 times. Most of those toxics are believed to come from cars and trucks, but Saint-Gobain and other industrial facilities contribute.
While Saint-Gobain’s record of citations and fines stands out from the crowd, it is far from alone in registering as a chronic violator, EPA records show. Saint-Gobain’s 94 citations over the last five years rank it as the second-most-cited firm in the region, behind the Hampton Lumber Mill in Darrington, which had 103 citations and came in fourth in the most-fined category at $233,000.
Steve Zika, chief executive officer of Portland-based Hampton Affiliates, said his company purchased the Darrington mill in 2002 and has made improvements to cut its air pollution while generating wood power for the local utility. The violations and penalties resulted from technical challenges that arose from the new equipment and changes in operations caused by a depressed lumber market, he said.
Hampton now has a settlement agreement with regulators spelling out actions to fix its problems.
Other Northwest companies filling out the most-fined list are Shell Oil’s refinery in Anacortes and two relatively unknown firms: the fire-resistant wood maker Chemco, of Ferndale, and Berry Plastics Corporation of the Seattle suburb of Kent, which makes plastic bags. While Berry was hit with a $213,000 fine, putting it into this top tier, the amount was ultimately reduced by nearly $200,000.
Many of the Northwest’s Clean Air Act violators are clustered in the Puget Sound region. Environmental regulators say that’s because of the heavy industrial nature of firms here. For example, Puget Sound’s five large oil refineries all rank in the top 20 regionally in fines.
The list of fined firms shows that local regulators are doing their job, said 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,” she said. The fines are “part of how you get people’s attention.”
The size of the penalties is determined in part by how long a violation has persisted. The large fines “can represent people dragging their feet or being in denial for some period of time,” Halvorson said. “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.”
Seattle’s Saint-Gobain is a good example of how harmful pollution can continue for years before regulators bring a company into compliance. Saint-Gobain’s Seattle plant failed more than 40 tests of its smokestack emissions between January 2006 and October 2010, EPA records indicate. The company reached an agreement with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to clean up its Seattle plant in 2007. It took another three years before the smokestack tests showed clean emissions.
“We believe all concerned are pleased with the progress which has been made 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),” the company said in a press release.
Most of the failed stack tests involved “particulate matter” – soot particles about one-seventh the width of a human hair that can lodge themselves in the human lung. The EPA says the main health problems expected from exposure to this pollution are “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, the largest maker of American wine bottles, also legally spewed nearly 400 pounds of lead compounds into South Seattle’s air last year, EPA records indicate. Lead is a neurotoxin known to retard children’s intellectual advancement. The plant is near the south Seattle communities of South Park and Georgetown, where the population has disproportionately high numbers of minorities and people of low income.
In 2010 federal prosecutors brought charges against Saint-Gobain covering 15 plants in 13 states, including the Seattle facility, saying the company systematically failed to adequately control pollutants, among other transgressions. Settling the charges, Saint-Gobain agreed to pay a $2.25 million fine and to install pollution-control equipment at an estimated cost of $112 million. But the company did not admit guilt.
The federal charges against Saint-Gobain, filed in federal court in Seattle, are actually unusual, according to the investigation by iWatch and NPR. They reported:
“Records, some previously undisclosed, show the extent to which Washington 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.”
“High priority violators” like Saint-Gobain are not all currently breaking the law. Rather, EPA designates polluters with this tag if they meet criteria in a complex formula that “is designed to direct scrutiny to those violations that are most important,” EPA says.
Nationwide, about a quarter of these violators appear on an internal EPA “watch list” that includes serious or chronic polluters that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. Until now, the list has not been made public. The latest version, dated September 2011, shows the names and locations of 383 facilities.
NPR and CPI used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain EPA’s “watch list,” which previously had not been disclosed publicly.
While there are hundreds of facilities on the national list – including industrial, commercial, military and municipal facilities such as oil refineries, steel mills, pharmaceutical manufacturers, incinerators and cement kilns – only four made the list in the Northwest.
Every facility on the watch list has had some history of tangles with regulators, although not all of them remain threats to public health. Some never were. For example, King County’s sewage treatment plant is outside of populated neighborhoods in Magnolia. So when plant operators discovered in 2008 that four massive sewage-pumping engines were emitting more nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide than permitted, the nearest residents had nothing to fear, said Pam Elardo, director of King County’s wastewater treatment division, who was manager of the plant in 2008.
“It’s light years away from being a (public health) problem given the location of West Point and the kind of winds they have,” Elardo said.
The county could have challenged regulators’ interpretation of the permit, Elardo said, but instead –after a year and a half of discussion – opted to promise to improve the process to emit fewer pollutants. That will take years, though, because the big sewage-pumping engines can only be taken offline during the dry times of year when less rain infiltrates sewer pipes.
Even close up, the treatment plant’s emissions aren’t that serious, Elardo said: “It’s far worse to stand next to a roadway.”
And that’s where Saint-Gobain sits, right next to Highway 99.
Bonnie Stewart of the Oregon Public Broadcasting-affiliated news site EarthFix contributed to this report.