waning days of the school l year brought an
unexpected season of unpleasantness to Mount Vernon
(Ind.) High School.
Much to the chagrin of many graduating students,
teacher Jo Hamm decided to suspend publication of
the school newspaper after a public flap was
generated by Brian Spaulding, Lauren Reynolds and
Jeff Walker. They wrote about the toxic
emissions from two of Posey County's largest
employers, Countrymark Refinery and General
The students made the terrible mistake of publicly
suggesting that there is a possible relationship
between the toxic emissions put out by the refinery
and GE's Lexan plastic production facility and the
elevated levels of cancer and cancer-related deaths
throughout the region.
They based most of their arguments on statistics
taken from the Internet site Scorecard (www.scorecard.org)
, a service closely associated with the Sierra
Club's Great Lakes Endowment, the Environmental
Defense Fund and the Environmental Publi8c Education
The self-reported "Toxic Release Inventory" data are
annually reported to state and governmental
Back in 1998, the Sierra Club widely distributed
copies of the "cancer map" which is shown on the map
on the site identifying GE Plastics in 1998 as the
13th largest carcinogenic point source in the United
States with more than 1.3 million pounds of
"recognized cancer-causing pollution released to the
air and water.
Acknowledging that GE had reduced emissions
significantly in the past several years, the
students made some factual errors in their initial
report published February 23 and the following
month, two scathing responses from employees of the
facilities in question were published along with a
front-page statement of corrections written by the
However, in reviewing the responses -- particularly
the one written by Kimberly Derk, site
communications manager for GE -- it is more than
apparent that these two facilities are sensitive
about seeing their toxic emissions discussed in the
press, even if its just a student newspaper.
Well then, what are all of these toxic emissions in
our air and water, and just how serious are they?
According to the 1999 Toxic Release Report for GE
published on the Indiana Department of Environmental
Management web site (the preferred data referred to
by Derk in her letter), the following statistics for
GE can be found:
Methanol (methyl alcohol, used as a volatile fuel in
Indianapolis race cars) 230,000 pounds released to
air and 11,000 pounds to water.
Dicholorodiflouromethane (HCFC-22) 519,000 pounds to
air and 110 pounds to water.
Cumene, 171 pounds to air and 1 pound to water.
Ethylene glycol (the active ingredient in automobile
radiator coolant), 3500 pounds to air and 16,000
pounds to water.
Toluene (the strongly aromatic, active ingredient in
model airplane cement), 234,000 pounds to air 54
pounds to water.
Phenol (an incredibly strong, aromatic solvent used
in paints and other industrial applications) 93,000
pounds to air and 54 pounds to water.
Hydrochloric acid (an extremely lethal, caustic
substance) 490,052 pounds to air.
Sulfuric acid (another extremely lethal, caustic
substance) 140,000 pounds to air.
Hydrogen fluoride (an extremely toxic and volatile
gas) 59,000 pounds to air.
Ammonia (yet another toxic and potentially explosive
gas) 19,000 pounds to air and 890 pounds to water.
While these are but a few of the toxice releases
reported to the state environmental agency and do
not account for the entire 2,495,361 pounds
(1,247.68 tons) of toxic releases to air and water
for which GE was responsible, they perhaps give us
some idea as to how serious the problem truly is.
Not all of these chemicals are known carcinogens,
but they are known to be extremely caustic or
dangerous to human health in high concentrations.
Countrymark's total emissions were reported to be
approximately 125,000 pounds in the correction
published by the students.
while GE gas reduced its toxic emissions
significantly in recent years, this does not account
for the enormous tonnages that have bombarded area
residents for the past four decades since the plant
opened in 1960.
Another thing that should be kept in mind is that
during 1999 GE Plastics with these enormous levels
of toxic emissions did not even rank among the top
10 industrial pollution facilities within the entire
state of Indiana. GE's emissions were eclipsed by
such nearby facilities as AK Steel in Spencer
County, Alcoa in Warrick County, PSI Cinergy's
Gibson County power plant and the Indianapolis Power
and Light facility in Pike County.
years the power establishment has been reluctant to
acknowledge that there could be a direct
relationship between the enormous toxic chemical
emissions put out by industrial facilities and power
plants of this region and the elevated rates of
cancer and respiratory diseases and deaths resulting
from both those afflictions.
These data should put this issue in the forefront of
any discussion of future economic development.
Although the reporting by the students at Mount
Vernon High School may have been flawed and plagued
by a few factual inaccuracies, their courageous
p0ublication of the truth in the eyes of many
concerned citizens is worthy or recognition.
We should be honoring them for focusing the light of
day upon a serious situation that continues to
afflict the public health of this region.
David Coker is an Evansville free lance writer.