St Helens Mill Endangers Citizens, Sends 23 to Hospital
I live in St Helens, right near the Boise Cascade mill. I've never really felt good about this neighbor; all summer long yellow-brown veils of smog hung over the city, trailed from the stacks at boise. And just before it rains, the whole town stinks of au de paper mill. I've called DEQ to complain, but never heard back, and I've called city hall, but gotten no help. Today, I learned from the local paper out here that there was a chemical accident nearly 2 weeks ago, that sent 23 people to the hospital. Despite living within spitting distance of the mill, I was never notified of any danger until today, reading it in the paper, 13 days later.
On September 8th, according to the Columbia County News/Adviser, "two chemicals were mistakenly mixed together, creating a poisonous gas, at the Boise Cascade Paper Mill." The accident happened at around 11:15 am, when a tanker truck full of sodium hypochlorite was accidentally unloaded into the wrong tank. A tank already filled with sodium bisulfate. The two gases combined to form sulfur dioxide, a poisonous gas that can cause respiratory and cardio-vascular problems, and that also causes acid rain.
I found this very disconcerting, to say the least. I never even thought about the possibility of this kind of accident happening here. So after reading the article, I did a little research. I found out that both of the chemicals in the dangerous combination are, in and of themselves, also very dangerous. Sodium hypochlorite, for example, becomes carcinogenic when it comes into contact with organic materials, such as dirt or soot. It can also form deadly chlorine gas if mixed with acid. Sodium bisulfate, on the other hand, can cause asphyxiation. I began to wonder what other surprises the mill might have in store.
Because I live here, and have a family here, I called city hall to find out what they knew. What is the danger from this? I was told by the person who answered the telephone that she did not know, that I should call Boise Cascade. But wait, I said. Doesn't the city have any kind of plan in case of an accident of this nature? What about citizen oversight? Is no one watching to make sure the mill operates in a safe manner? No, the woman said, there is no plan. And no, the city has no oversight, and knows nothing about this matter. She said I would have to call the mill. As an afterthought, she added that I could try the county, maybe they know something.
I tried the offices of Columbia county next. I spoke with Vicky Hargouth there. She was more helpful than city hall had been, but even she conceded that there really are no local plans to deal with an emergency of this nature, and that there is no civilian oversight. At least, she said, not at a local level. She told me that the mill had reported the accident to the Oregon Emergency Response system, and that there had been no requirement for public notification because "the gas dissipated immediately." (After sending 23 people to the hospital, I guess.) She also believed that the mill was regulated by some board, but she was not sure which. She, too, indicated that I should call Boise Cascade. She did, however, at least have the good grace to laugh when I told her I would not necessarily have a lot of trust in what the PR folks at the mill had to say about it.
Given that there were people in Bhopal, India, who complained about the Union Carbide plant for some time, and no one listened to them, I was a bit concerned that local officials seem so disinterested in the potential for a chemical accident in this community. I was also surprised that city and county officials were so blindingly willing to trust their lives and mine to the corporate citizenship of Boise Cascade. Again, I'm sure there were local officials in Bhopal who felt the same way, right before the infamous accident that cost thousands of neighboring lives. Since then, there's really no excuse for that kind of witlessness.
I finally gave in to the advice of those who work with my elected officials, and called the unelected force that really runs this town. I called Boise Cascade. I was put through, naturally, to the public relations folks. I spoke with Karen Punch, communications manager. She's very good at her job, I must say. Sweet, and smooth, and cheerful. She did her very best to be helpful, if not to me, at least to the firm. She was very courteous and professional, and is a credit to her profession and her masters. If I were not a skeptical soul, if I knew nothing about the pathological nature of the corporate beast, if i did not understand that the corporation always puts its own interests above any others and that every organ of the machine is designed to lie, cover up, and obfuscate in its defense, well I might have been reassured.
Yes, Ms. Punch acknowledged, there are a lot of toxic chemicals there at Boise Cascade. But they're really, really careful with them. Not to worry. They have lots of containment equipment, the poisons are "right in the middle" of the 60 acre site, and there is "very little danger" of any of it ever "going off site." She did concede that they do have a number of what she called "black stack" incidents, in which oil is gushed into the air through the stacks out there. I guess that's the black stuff I see pouring out into the air now and then. Oh, and yes, there is a lot of odor sometimes. But not to worry, none of this is dangerous. Or not very dangerous, anyway. Regarding the sulfur dioxide accident, she assured me that none of it ever went off site, because "it's heavier than air. It immediately settled to the ground." And that's why, presumably, no one bothered to notify the people who live around the mill. No one bothered to tell me, or the kids at the grade school, or the people at the high school, or the folks at the daycare down the road. No one alerted any of the kids playing at McCormick Park, just across the street from the mill. Because they figured it was no big deal.
I can't say I'm very assured, though. For one thing, the county official had told me that the gas "dissipated immediately." So did it dissipate? Or did it settle to the ground? Because those are two very different things. So it sounds like at least one of the people who is supposed to be able to tell me what happened is either uninformed, or lying. For another thing, since sulfur dioxide is the chief cause of acid rain, it seems logical to assume that some of it can, presumably, get into the atmosphere. That is, it can get into the air we breathe. And finally, even if it "merely" settled to the ground, the mill is located right near me, and right on the banks of the Columbia river. Any toxin settling to the ground there is going to be seeping into the same earth where I grow food for my family, and into the water that is the life's blood of this entire region. So I am not comforted by this.
I asked Karen whether there was any local citizen oversight of the facility, because I would like to get involved. No, she said. There is none. ("Speaking of Bhopal," she said ironically, "the mill takes part in PSM, or Process Safety Management, which was instituted after Bhopal." From what I could gather, PSM is a set of guidelines determining how toxic chemicals are delivered, handled, stored, and used at the facility. I guess that means there's nothing to worry about any longer, they have a plan.) Still, city officials are not updated about safety precautions at the mill, county emergency planners are not kept abreast of developments such as the recent incident, and local citizens have no say in what happens right here in our community, to our air, our water, our earth, our ecosystem, our lungs.
However, Karen assured me that the mill is overseen at the federal level, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Rather than being reassured, I found it scary that my safety in this matter is apparently in the same hands that managed so poorly in New Orleans recently. Why only at the federal level? Why no oversight at the local level? If the EPA and DEQ operate anything like FEMA, the town could wash away in a cloud of sulfur dioxide before anyone even bothered to tap out a memo. We are, after all, a working class town.
Karen could offer no further reassurance, except to say that they do have very stringent standards that they must meet. She also told me that, well, there is something called CEPA (short for Columbia Emergency Planning Association) that meets every month and talks about how to respond to an emergency such as this. CEPA is, she said, made up of people from Boise, people from Dyno Nobel corp (they make explosives for the military and mining companies), people from Armstrong Industries (they, like Boise, seem to be a superfund site, from what I can gather from the EPA's very confusing website) and other local manufacturers. Wow. Would anyone feel safe in those hands? She did say that the CEPA meetings are open to the public, and that the next one (should anyone be interested in attending) will be at the mill on October 4th at 10am. The address at the mill is 1300 Kaster Rd, St Helens, OR.
Out of curiosity, I asked Karen where the owners of the mill live. She hemmed a bit about that, saying that many of the managers and all of the workers live right here in St Helens, or maybe in Portland. But, well, the headquarters are in Boise, Idaho. But again, she insisted, "most of us are from right here. So this is not just some big, faceless entity."
Actually, though, I did a little more research after I talked to her. I discovered that it is, in fact, some big, faceless entity. After a sale last year, Boise Cascade is now owned by MDP, or Madison Dearborne Partners, LLC. "Based in Chicago," says the MDP website, they are "one of the largest and most experienced private equity investment firms in the United States." Worth $billions, this corporate megalith "invests in management buyout and other private equity transactions across a broad spectrum of industries." Further, "MDP's objective is to invest in companies...to achieve significant long-term appreciation in equity value." In other words, it's a giant, soul-less, money-making gargantuan. Or, in still other words, it's a big, faceless, entity. Boise Cascade just happens to be one of its "aquisitions." The people of this community are not even a blip on the screen back at headquarters. So long as the numbers keep rolling along black, no one at MDP gives a rat's ass if sulfur dioxide streams out of the mill, if people are put at risk, or if the local yokels have any kind of contingency plan whatsoever to deal with the possibility of disaster.
I also discovered that Boise Cascade has a long history of environmental issues, followed by PR whitewashes. As noted above, the EPA website has a rather confusing facility profile of Boise, in which a category entitled "Archived superfund report" has a big, black, "Yes" in that box. Further, the US Department of Justice took action against Boise on at least one occasion, demanding that they reduce air pollution by 95%. According to the Siskiyou Regional Education Project http://forests.org/archive/america/rapboise.htm, aside from raping public forests and dumping toxins into the air, Boise also has a long history of endangering workers, including an incident in which 5 workers in one plant contracted non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a rare, sometimes fatal form of blood cancer. Also according to the Siskiyou Regional Education Project In 1991, and again in 1992, Boise Cascade fought to weaken Oregon state dioxin regulations, requesting that minimum allowable levels be raised from 0.013ppq (the level recommended by EPA) to 2.3 ppq. This corporation does not care about my health or my community.
The one thing that Boise spokesperson Karen Punch said that i did find somewhat comforting was when she reflected, for a moment, on why she believes that the mill is a good neighbor. It's because, she sighed, management knows that "If the community decides they don't want you here, they can get you out. If you're not a good neighbor..."
Let it be so. I want them out.
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