Three fertilizer plants in Louisiana were the biggest toxic polluters in the nation, dumping almost 500 million pounds of toxins into the Missssippi River, according to government estimates between 1992 and 1996.
But critics said the threat of pollution from corn and soybean fertilizer is exaggerated.
The facilities were all based outside Baton Rouge: the IMC-Agrico Co. plants in St. James and Uncle Sam, as well as the PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer L.P. plant in Geismar. Overall, Louisiana companies discharged 478 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Mississippi River, almost 40 times more chemicals than were dumped from the state of Mississippi.
Tom Pasztor, a spokesman for IMC-Agrico Co., said the company has made great strides at reducing the amount of discharges into the river. In 1993, the company, which is headquartered in Northrup, Illinois, released 190 million pounds in 1993. But IMC-Agrico released only 16.5 million pounds in 1994 and lower figures since then.
Put together by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the report, "Troubled Waters: A Report on Toxic Releases into America's Waterways," contends that Amricans are "in the dark" about most corporate pollution.
"Year after year, America's waterways continue to serve as dumping grounds for toxic pollution," concluded PIRG, a national non-profit organization that wrote the study using data from the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory.
According to the study, which was released last week, the discharge of toxic substances into rivers and streams present a number of problems.
One potential problem is health: the chemicals may cause cancer, birth defects and reproduction troubles. "In 39 states, there are thousands of lakes that have been basically shut down, because women and children eat fish with high-mercury levels," said Allison LaPlante, an environmental advocate who works for PIRG.
Another is environmental, because the chemicals induce "severe effects" on the water quality at coastal lakes and waters. "The excessive nutrients cause the rapid growth of algae and other aquatic plants that eventually have detrimental efects on aquatic life," the report says.
But critics contend that, in Louisiana at least, the study's conclusions are misleading.
Emelise Cormier, a water official for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the report gives the wrong impression of the type of pollutants being released.
"I think it's exaggerated in the way it's presented, in calling the (pollutants) toxic chemicals, because when people think of toxic chemicals of something they think of something that's truly toxic, that can get you sick immediately," Cormier said, adding that Louisiana plants dump phosphorous acids into the Mississippi.
"These are not your typical chemicals that cause cancer or cause you to die. In fact, it's in your average soft drink," she said. "I wouldn't swim in the Mississippi River, but from a chemical standpoint I don't worry."
Ken Johnson, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, agreed, faulting the report for not demonstrating the real-life effects of sch pollution.
"These groups are always making these allegations, but where's the documented proof? If they can bring proof of these plants . . . causing people to become ill or to die then we'll be the first people to shut (these plants) down," Johnson said.
Johnson acknowledged, however, that the phosphorous acids may cause harm in the Gulf of Mexico, creating what are called "dead zones." Cormier concurred, saying that phosphorous chemicals may "draw down the amount oxygen" in the Mississippi.
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