Community Comment:

Alcoa's toxic emissions remain high, despite openness

Shortly after an annual environmental open house at Alcoa's Warrick Operations a few months ago, I received the company's environmental report for 1999.  It is a colorful, attractive brochure with lots of pictures put together by a local public relations firm. 

The report is intended to highlight the means by which the company was attempting to reduce harmful air, water and solid-waste emission from the various plant operations.

Many pages contained graphs almost too small to read and which attempted to show how the plant has made serious reductions in emissions of chlorine (a toxic, gaseous puri8fying agent used in aluminum smelting) in water excursions(the plant recently spent $11.5 million for a new wastewater treatment system) and in toxic spills on the plant site.

There have also apparently been major reductions in solid-waste depositions in local landfills with some attention paid to reducing diatomaceous earth and waste wax, and to recycle "spent furnace refractory." a technical way to say the company is recycling fire bricks in many of its ovens.

To the company's credit, the Warrick County facility was awarded the Governor's Award for Excellence in Recycling in 1996.

I did not attend the open house, but a number of my friends who did were reluctant to criticize Alcoa's emissions record and they claimed that corporate officials were very candid and open about discussing their "reduce, reuse and recycle" ethic in play for the past several years. 

Having learned this, I contacted Mike Belwood, a former Evansville Courier employee who handles public relations for the company. 

We met for lunch and during our meeting, I told him I wanted to write a laudatory article about Alcoa and its efforts to reduce emissions.  I told him my primary reason for doing this was the enormous toxic-pollution situation at General Electric Plastics in Mount Vernon. 

I am convinced that industrial emissions throughout the Tri-State are having a significantly negative impact upon the public health of the region.

GE was cited as the 13th largest emitter of cancer-causing toxic chemicals in the country by the Sierra Club, which used 1996 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (the map is available on the Internet at

GE released more than 1.3 million pounds of carcinogens and contributed mightily to the more than 10 million pound of industrial carcinogenic chemical released statewide, ranking Indiana second only to Texas in total emissions.

After our luncheon, I began looking at Alcoa's TRI data for the past few years and found myself perplexed.  Despite the company's admissions and efforts, total environmental releases of potentially hazardous chemicals were up in 1997, reported to be some 2.6 million pounds, up a little more than 300,000 pounds over 1996. 

While the Warrick operations made great strides in reducing off-site transfers of solid wastes to local landfills -- down to 598.518 pounds from 1.3 million pounds the previous year -- its overall air emissions were up 108,219 pounds in 1997,  from 2.257 million pounds to 2.360 million pounds.

These data do not take into account the additional air and water emissions coming from the coal-fired power plants operate by SIGCORP nearby, one of which Alcoa owns half.

Overall, the Sierra Club states that because of Alcoa's emissions,  Warrick County continues to rank in the top 10 per cent of all counties in the country for total environmental releases and holds the same distinction for non-cancer-causing air and water releases. 

The data reveal that Alcoa has a long way to go before its environmental efforts can truly be commended.  The company deserves high marks and praise for being open and candid about its efforts with the environmental community, a tendency of which other corporate facilities in the area -- particular GE -- should take note. 

It is high time that the public health dangers of the pollution put out by corporations across the state of Indiana became the No. 1 political issue in this state. 

Readers, if there has been a cancer death in your family, it is time to start opening your mouths as the general election approaches.

David Coker of Evansville is a free-lance writer.