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The Cyanide Canary.

The Cyanide Canary Joseph Hilldorfer Robert Dugoni Free Press 352 pp., $26

The book jacket touts "A Story of Injustice: One man caused it, one man fought it, one man's life was destroyed by it." Yes, a man caused the injustice and a man suffered, but the "man" who fought it was actually a whole chorus of characters attached to the EPA's law enforcement arm, and this book is really the story of how a little-known government agency carries out a sizable mission in the face of bureaucratic roadblocks.

This environmental crime story is not a whodunit; it focuses on the investigation--an approach Law & Order fans will appreciate. The story is told from the perspective of coauthor Joseph Hilldorfer, a Seattle-based special agent for the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division (EPA/CID). For him, the job is as serious as his former one: FBI agent. He describes the case against the defendant as "the environmental-crime equivalent of proving ... first-degree murder."

Readers may think of environmental crime as misconduct by corporations that, for example, don't adequately monitor the runoff from their plants, allowing it to contaminate the water table. But the crimes can be more insidious and much closer to home. Greed, say the authors, propels some unconscionable behavior:
 Disposing of a 55-gallon drum of hazardous
 waste at a hazardous-waste facility costs ten
 to a hundred times more than disposing of
 it at a nonhazardous-waste facility. Companies
 chose to dump it onto the ground and
 into pits, ponds, and lagoons, to dispose of
 it like household trash in landfills or pay a
 subculture of illegal hazardous-waste haulers.
 These "sludge runners" dumped it in
 city sewers, left barrels and boxes in shopping
 center parking lots and rented warehouses,
 delivered it to fictitious addresses,
 buried it in pits, mixed it with dirt and passed
 it off to unsuspecting developers as landfill,
 sold it in contaminated oil to be burned
 in apartment houses and hospital furnaces,
 or simply drove down the highway on rainy
 days with the spigots on their tanks open.

Environmental crimes can be egregious, but our government can fight them, the authors write. They point to multiple federal agencies and their subdivisions, including the EPA/CID and the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Environmental Crimes Section; local U.S. Attorneys Offices; and state and local environmental quality agencies.

This is their story.

It is also the story of Scott Dominguez of Soda Spring, Idaho, who worked at Evergreen Resources. In August 1996, the company's owner, Allan Elias, ordered Dominguez and two other employees to clean out a 25,000-gallon storage tank. Elias did not discuss the proper procedure or provide safety equipment. After Dominguez was left severely brain-damaged from inhaling hydrogen cyanide while doing the job, Elias lied, saying he had not stored the components of the poisonous gas in the tank. He told rescue personnel and accident investigators that it had been empty when he transported it from another plant and that it now contained only water and sludge "as safe as ordinary shampoo."

Dominguez was left in a condition similar to advanced Parkinson's disease, with spasmodic control of his limbs and a fractured ability to speak that the authors capture heart-wrenchingly in his few, garbled words of dialogue with Hilldorfer and in his courtroom testimony.

There was a history of workplace safety violations and employee injuries at Evergreen and other operations Elias had owned. As a lawyer, Elias had the smarts to always appear to remain just within the bounds of the law. He provided no safety equipment or training to employees, whom he verbally abused and regularly instructed to lie about working conditions, threatening them with firing in a tight economy where a job, any job, meant survival.

For injuring Dominguez, Elias was ultimately charged with knowingly endangering a worker, which carried a $250,000 personal fine, a $1 million fine against the corporation, and imprisonment for up to 15 years. The trial scenes will ring true to plaintiff lawyers familiar with endless delays, constantly rescheduled court dates, seemingly capricious judges, and the defense's inevitable attempt to take a mulligan.

A criminal conviction carrying jail time is a rare victory in environmental crimes cases. What the plaintiff lawyer will learn from this book is how government agencies work to put on a case, and the specific hurdles facing agencies charged with monitoring environmental violations. To keep big business from manipulating its 10 regional offices, the EPA instituted a system whereby its CID could only refer cases to DOJ for prosecution. Cases became known as "beans," and the number of beans a regional office referred became the only way to quantify its work and compete for scarce funding.

DOJ declined almost two-thirds of these referred cases for various reasons; it often accused EPA agents of bean-counting to garner funding, rather than fully investigating cases. And as the fledgling environmental-crimes agencies struggled, Congress amended the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act so that they had to oversee not 15,000 but about 200,000 facilities.

In this spider web of red tape, ill will, and lackluster faith in the organizations' mission from nearly every entity involved, EPA agent Hilldorfer and his colleagues must pull together enough evidence for the DOJ to convict Elias.

Using a simple narrative structure, the authors succeed impressively in describing the layers of government and their machinations, while keeping the story lively and interesting yet not overwhelming the reader with unnecessary detail.

Readers will refer to the list of "dramatis personae" at the front of the book frequently, as the many characters appear, sometimes only briefly, on the pages that follow. In addition, each chapter is headed with a date and location--a useful device in a book that involves so many people, agencies, and events in Seattle, Idaho, and Washington, D.C. Chapters containing the story of Scott Dominguez weave in and out unobtrusively.

I suspect the best thing Hilldorfer did in telling his story was to collaborate with a skilled writer. Robert Dugoni of Seattle, a writer and lawyer who practiced there and in San Francisco for 15 years, probably deserves much credit for piecing together a cohesive narrative from Hilldorfer's account and other sources, including "thousands of pages of sworn trial testimony and interviews" that are carefully footnoted.

His brief, vividly descriptive portraits of the cast of thousands and his occasional light tone balance the inevitable plodding parade of government acronyms. For example, as when Hilldorfer considers the city where EPA/CID has assigned him: "He knew nothing about Seattle except that it was wet, had a reputation for good fugitive work, and the people who lived there drank a lot of coffee and didn't cross the street against a red light."

The narrative wavers, ever so slightly, into daytime TV melodrama in only one or two spots. When Hilldorfer first meets Dominguez, he sees "an angelic face of unblemished skin and eyes the color of dark chocolate. Scott Dominguez reminded him of a young Tom Cruise." But other, snarkier character descriptions correct the tendency: "Elias sounded like Larry King, the talk-show host, but with a temper."

If the book has one flaw, it is the too-brief mention of the civil suit Dominguez's mother filed against Elias, Evergreen, and Kerr-McGee, a larger corporation for which Elias did contract work. What was the result? The authors don't say. Perhaps it's a story for another book.

REBECCA PORTER is an associate editor at TRIAL.
COPYRIGHT 2004 American Association for Justice
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Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Porter, Rebecca
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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