Pharos research path leads to most polluting facility in country: US Magnesium

James Vallette | March 15, 2013 | Newsletter

Flying over the Great Salt Lake, en route to last year’s Greenbuild, I spied a massive industrial facility above the lake’s southern flank. It was a surreal mix of briny discharge ponds and bronze stacks of smoke and slag.  Of course, I wondered what this was.

This week, I came upon this plant again, in the normal course of doing Pharos research.  I was looking at an aluminum alloy used in a product we are evaluating for an upcoming category release (wall and corner protection). Aluminum Alloy 5052-H32 contains 2.2%-2.8% magnesium, according to Aluminum Association specifications. (1)

In Pharos, we examine not only what is in products, but also how these contents themselves are made.  Through this procedure, as a requirement of our evaluations, we begin to identify upstream impacts on the environment and human health.

Manufacturing process research also allows us to more accurately identify monomers, catalysts, and non-reactive additives that could be carried into the building material.  This information typically is not apparent to consumers and, often, manufacturers.

The evaluation of an aluminum corner guard required us to look, for the first time, at production of elemental magnesium.   It turns out that the number one use (43% of consumption) of primary magnesium is in aluminum alloys.   And all commercial extraction and processing of elemental magnesium in the country occur here, at the US Magnesium plant on the south shore of Great Salt Lake. (2)

There are few people who live anywhere near this hellscape, thank goodness.  But its environmental impacts are extreme.

Here’s how the US EPA describes US Magnesium:

The facility is adjacent to the Great Salt Lake, an area that has been designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and is being considered as a Wetland of International Importance. It is an ecosystem that attracts millions of birds per year and houses many unique plants and animals as well as certain species of federal and state concern.

The facility has been producing magnesium at the site since 1972. It uses brine from the Great Salt Lake as the raw material and produces a variety of wastes. There are areas of uncontrolled wastes on the property, which investigations show are threatening the health of workers and the environment.

EPA and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality have been concerned about releases from the facility to the environment from the site for more than 15 years. Risk assessments show environmental and human health risks.  Contaminants consist of heavy metals, acidic wastewater, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins/furans, hexachlorobenzene (HCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These contaminants have both cancerous and non-cancerous health risks to humans and wildlife and have been released into the air, soil, surface water, and groundwater and are largely uncontrolled.

Birds have been regularly observed in contact with or near contaminated areas on the site. Observations indicate that waterfowl can die after coming into contact with the contamination. Bird egg studies have documented concentrations of PCB and HCB in eggs at or near the site. Additionally, about twenty years ago, the lake level rose and flooded the site, creating an open conduit for contaminants to travel into the Great Salt Lake.

Dioxin, PCBs and HCB are present at levels potentially posing both cancer and non-cancer (diabetes and immune system) risks to industrial workers throughout the site. (3)

The US Public Interest Research Group, which has examined EPA Toxics Release Inventory data for decades, identified US Magnesium as the most polluting plant in the country.  It has released more "suspected neurological toxicants" and "suspected respiratory toxicants" than any other. (4)

US Magnesium’s releases are almost unfathomable. Between the years 2000 and 2011, it released over:

  • 119 pounds of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds
  • 653 pounds of mercury
  • 1,364 pounds of PCBs
  • 7,275 tons of hexachlorobenzene, and,
  • 51,835 tons of chlorine  (5)

EPA designated US Magnesium as a priority Superfund site in 2009, but the plant keeps on compounding its impacts. Annual rates of chlorine releases more than doubled from 2007 to 2011, and dioxin releases increased by 167%.

The marketplace is part of this equation. When consumers become aware of acutely damaging impacts tied to their purchases, they have been known to upset the calculus.   We offer a couple of quick suggestions for industry to consider and consumers to preferentially purchase: 1) use of 100% post-consumer / reclaimed aluminum alloys, or 2) use of one of the twenty alloys that do not contain magnesium, according to Aluminum Association specifications.

We need to know these connections. This is why we research how the material contents of building materials are made.

SOURCES

(1) The Aluminum Association, International Alloy Designations and Chemical Composition Limits for Wrought Aluminum and Wrought Aluminum Alloys, February 2009, available at:

http://www.aluminum.org/Content/NavigationMenu/TheIndustry/IndustryStandards/Teal_Sheets.pdf

(2) Deborah Kramer,  Magnesium Metal, U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2013, available at: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/magnesium/ 

(3) "EPA Region 8 Superfund Utah Cleanup Sites: US Magnesium," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, website, as accessed March 15, 2013 at http://www.epa.gov/region8/superfund/ut/usmagnesium/index.html

(4) Lee Davidson, “U.S. Magnesium still ‘worst polluter,” Deseret News, Jan. 22, 2003, available at: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/960632/US-Magnesium-still-worst-polluter.html?pg=all

(5) US EPA Toxics Release Inventory data (2000-2011) for US Magnesium, available at: http://oaspub.epa.gov/enviro/tris_control_v2.tris_print?tris_id=84074MXMGNROWLE