By Pia K. Hansen

Certain environmental issues have earned perennial spots in the Inland Northwest's collective consciousness over the past couple of decades. Some are easy to spot, such as the smoke-covered horizons Save Our Summers (SOS) has fought long and hard against. After continuously making headlines throughout many burning seasons, SOS was instrumental in changing the law to limit the decades-old agricultural practice of burning leftover stubble in Washington state. Other local environmental organizations, such as The Lands Council (TLC) and The Washington Environmental Council (WEC), continue to raise awareness about the heavy metal contamination in local rivers and lakes, which is just now being thoroughly documented. And a variety of grassroots groups have sprung up to protest the city of Spokane's garbage incinerator, claiming it is pumping dangerous dioxin into the air.

There is, however, one area that often escapes detailed public scrutiny as the battle for a healthy environment is being fought: the pollution coming from large local businesses. Granted, some of these emissions automatically figure in surveys and tests routinely conducted by state agencies monitoring the environment, but even large businesses with less than stellar environmental records don't seem to attract much attention from the activists.

"There really is a gap there in the environmental community, and that's kind of sad," says Michelle Nanni, spokeswoman for the Lands Council. "People are following the grass burning and the water issues, but no one seem to be following Kaiser or any of the other industrial pollution sources a whole lot."

Into that gap falls Kaiser Aluminum, which has been repeatedly fined over the past two years for air quality violations and failing to meet permit requirements issued by the Department of Ecology. With two large plants in Spokane, one in Mead and one in Trentwood, Kaiser is not only one of the region's largest employers, it's also been a shaping force in the lives of many Spokane families since the first plant opened in 1942. The plants in Spokane, together with the one in Tacoma, employ more than 2,200 people. But Kaiser has also fallen on hard times of late, as international competition has made aluminum a cheaper commodity, shifting the company's bottom line. More recently, in September, 1998, the company's unionized steelworkers were locked out, engulfing the company in a costly, drawn-out labor dispute.

This labor dispute may be one of the reasons public attention has been drawn temporarily away from the fact that Kaiser is one of this state's most frequently fined industrial polluters. Since June, 1998, Kaiser has been issued six environmental violation citations in Trentwood and 11 in Mead -- the latest of which was just issued on June 29 -- all together running up $231,000 worth of environmental fines and quite a lot of explaining to do.

"You can't just look at all the citations as one and the same thing, even if some of them are grouped together," says Bernard P. Leber, Jr., Kaiser's environmental affairs manager. "Some of these go back to when we started making changes to the production process. We have not caused anybody harm."

The brunt of the citations came around the time -- or is connected to the time period -- when the labor dispute broke out. Even the latest citation, which Kaiser is now disputing, goes back to when the labor dispute broke out. At that time, the regular Kaiser staff was replaced by temporary workers, who had to learn how to run the plants from the ground up. Some environmental groups have suggested it was irresponsible of Kaiser to continue to run the plants with replacement staff, but Ecology has maintained that new equipment and new staff are not excuses for not following the law.

"When you look at the total number of citations we have issued since the beginning of '99, you'll see Kaiser fined over and over again," says Jani Gilbert, a spokesperson for Ecology. "It's as simple as that."

"Those citations were related to all of what was going on," explains Susan Ashe, Kaiser's Northwest public affairs manager. "They were by no means intentional. We worked hard to avoid that conflict, but what were we supposed to do? As a company, we could not afford to close down the pot lines and wait for things to blow over."

Kaiser produces aluminum for soda cans, cars and aircraft at the plants in Spokane, some of which is exported.

"There is no question that we do generate wealth here," says Ashe. "The estimated economic impact of our business in this area is $1.6 billion annually."

Many local families have worked for the company for generations, and though some of its wage policies and retirement plans have been drawn into question, Kaiser has long been considered one of the best employers in the area.

The local steelworkers are wrapped up in negotiations to end the conflict and could not be reached for comment on the environmental issues surrounding their former employer.

But the environmental citations and fines (Kaiser has paid every fine issued) continue to add up. Of the 11 citations against the Mead plant, eight deal with air quality violations such as emitting more particulate matter or sulfur dioxide per ton of aluminum produced than allowed. Only one citation mentions emitting too much fluoride, a major concern when dealing with aluminum producers.

"When you look at primary aluminum production, fluoride is kind of the parameter everyone is looking at, because of the potential damage it can cause to vegetation and livestock," says Leber. "If you look at our 1998 and 1999 emissions, we were 60 percent less in '99 than in '98, and we project an overall reduction in fluoride emissions of 80 percent in 2000 compared to '98. We are well within the ambient air standards."

Because vegetation is much more sensitive to fluoride than humans, the standards for fluoride levels in vegetation in the immediate plant area are seven times as low as for people. Still, Kaiser has not violated these limits.

"There is a new federal requirement [for limiting fluoride emissions] that comes into effect in October of 2001, and we have asked for an extension to do the work we need to do at the plant to reach that standard," says Leber. "The eight pot lines have to meet the requirement independently. Right now, one line is designated as the one we do all the measurements on according to the agreement we have with the DOE. Again, overall, we have seen a significant decrease in fluoride emission over the past two years."

Kaiser makes its own air quality measurements each month, which are then reported to Ecology. Once a year, an independent contractor comes in to survey the plant and approve the monitoring methods applied. Ecology issues any citations against Kaiser's plants, and the company then has 30 days to appeal the citation and dispute Ecology's findings.

"In '97, there was one data point that measured some ungodly high emission rate that we felt had to be in error," says Leber. "We disputed that and appealed that, but we lost the case and we were penalized $12,000 on that one."

The citation issued in October of '98 fell during the first month of the strike. At the same time as the workers went on strike, Kaiser was implementing a brand new, $50-million anode baking facility, and a brand new air control system.

"Toward the end of the month, we had a lot of new people who didn't realize how closely connected what you do in the pot room is to emissions," says Leber. "They were all new and all trying to do a really good job sweeping and cleaning up, and they were creating way too much dust. So we wound up with just a little bit higher emissions than what we were allowed to have."

In January of '99, a part of the air quality system failed, says Leber, resulting in a misleading reading. This citation cost Kaiser a fine of $37,200.

Ultimately, the new air control system will reduce air pollution from the Mead plant, says Leber: "Because of these improvements, we have reduced overall emissions by 65 percent compared to the system we replaced."

But examining the size of the fines or the frequency by which the violations are issued doesn't necessarily explain the environmental impact of a company's violation. Some companies may get a one-time sizeable fine, such as Cleancare Corporation in Tacoma, Wash., which was penalized $373,500 for violating more than 50 environmental regulations while handling hazardous waste in one single instance in July, 1999. Nonetheless, Kaiser is still at the top of the list kept by Ecology, no matter if frequency or dollar amounts are the measurement applied.

Ecology began keeping track of citations issued throughout the state in April '99, and through March, 2000, Kaiser was fined five times in Mead and once in Tacoma, for a total of $188,448. Only the logging company Weyerhauser in Cosmopolis, Wash., comes close to being fined as many times with five citations costing that company $38,900.

Kaiser insists that using replacement workers while at the same time introducing a new production system is what led to most of the problems -- not carelessness about the environment.

"This is not to say anything bad about the workforce, but they were all new and trying to do a good job," says Ashe. "The bottom line is that we have looked at the problems, found a solution and dealt with the issues."

But Kaiser may not be out of Ecology's reach yet, as Ecology Spokeswoman Sandy Howard in Olympia confirms that her agency is pursuing an ongoing investigation against Kaiser's repeated lapses. Meanwhile, the continuity of the fines leaves a cloud hanging over the plants and the company.

"Kaiser is one of the state's largest polluters, and, of course, if they have been fined, it's a problem for all of us in terms of our air quality," says Bonnie Mager from the Washington Environmental Council. "We'd like to see Kaiser obey the laws. They should be adhering to the law or go above and beyond the law, to try and protect the health of the public and the people who work there."

But that's actually what Kaiser is doing, argues Leber: "We think a facility which doesn't work to protect the environment is eventually going to lose the support of the community. We try to take a broader perspective and look at the long-term impact when we make changes to our production."

Ashe is quick to admit that the last couple of years have been difficult for Kaiser. Environmental issues, global competition and the labor dispute have taken their toll on the company. But Ashe insists Kaiser still has a firm commitment to protecting the environment while producing aluminum at a competitive price.

Like the mining and the oil industry, aluminum producers have been struggling to fit into a new environmentally conscious world where old-fashioned production practices are no longer acceptable, something Ashe is very aware of: "I think we are a company that's redefining itself. Given the last couple of years of a labor dispute we hope is coming to a conclusion before too long, it's pretty clear to us that we need to be a bit more active in the community. We need to reach out a little more, and we are hopeful that the community meets us halfway as well. I would be less than candid if I didn't say the last couple of years have been hard on the community relationship."

Penalties issued against Kaiser's Mead plant for violations from 1998-99:

June 12, 1998: $12,000 for emitting more than 15 lbs. of particulate matter per ton of aluminum produced in April, 1997.

December 29, 1998: $19,600 for bypassing air control equipment from May 15 through September 2, same year. Fined $4,600 for bypassing air control equipment and excess emissions of fluoride and particulates, from November 10, 1997, through May 15, 1998.

March 19, 1999: $24,800 for emitting more than 15 lbs. of particulate per ton of aluminum produced from the pot room scrubber, in October, 1998.

May 7, 1999: $37,200 for emitting more than 15 lbs. of particulate per ton of aluminum produced from the pot room scrubber, in January, 1999.

June 4, 1999: $18,400 for exceeding the number of pounds of sulfur dioxide emitted per ton of aluminum produced, in October, November and December, 1998.

July 23, 1999: $24,000 for missing deadlines for submitting stormwater management plan and engineering report; violating discharge limits of water quality permits, in February and on April 30, 1999.

On August 9, 1999: $58,800 for bypassing the air pollution control equipment from September 2, 1998, through April 14, 1999.

March 6, 2000: $2,000 for failure to meet chlorine effluent limit in wastewater, on December 13, 1999.

April 5, 2000: $9,600 for bypassing the air pollution control equipment on 26 separate days from April 11 through December 31, 1999.

June 19, 2000: $20,000 for failure to apply for notice of construction air quality permits for modifications in pot room, in April, 1995.

In the same period, Kaiser's plant in Trentwood has received eight citations adding up to $15,000 in fines for not meeting the opacity limit of 24 percent for the emissions coming from the smokestack and other air quality violations.

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