Community Comment:

Just what emissions were high school students

writing about?

The 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 Electric Plastics.

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 ( , a service closely associated with the Sierra Club's Great Lakes Endowment, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Environmental Publi8c Education Project. 

The self-reported "Toxic Release Inventory" data are annually reported to state and governmental agencies. 

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 students.

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. 

And 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.

For 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.