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Slime and Punishment

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, September 24, 2004; Page C03

THE CYANIDE CANARY

By Joseph Hilldorfer

and Robert Dugoni

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Free Press. 336 pp. $26

On Aug. 27, 1996, 20-year-old Scott Dominguez of Soda Springs, Idaho, went off to his awful job at a two-bit phosphate fertilizer plant run by a perfectly awful man. "I'm afraid to go to work," Dominguez said to his girlfriend before he left. The day before he'd been inside an enclosed tank cleaning out chemical residue, and had gotten a terrible sore throat and flulike symptoms. His boss, Allan Elias, owner of the wretched hellhole in question (called, ironically, Evergreen Resources), didn't believe in safety devices. He believed, instead, in yelling at his four employees, stranded out in chemical nowhere. "There's nothing in that tank but mud and water," he insisted, and once again, Scott Dominguez and another guy -- because they were the skinny ones -- had to go down through a narrow hole at the top, into the tank.

What else could they do? For one reason or another, they couldn't find work at more reputable places like Monsanto or Kerr-McGee. They lived down, down at the bottom of the economic food chain. They needed their jobs, and so they went in, and were overwhelmed by cyanide gas. The other guy managed to escape, but Dominguez passed out in a slurry of chemicals. By the time the fire department and paramedics got to him -- by cutting a larger hole in the top of the tank and heroically risking their own lives -- he was on the brink of death, horribly brain-damaged for the rest of his life.

During all this, Elias sat in the cab of his truck or lounged in his tiny office, taking the position that there was nothing but mud and water in the tank, that his four employees and others in the past had all gone through safety training, that there was plenty of safety equipment around there someplace, but that his employees were lazy and stupid. Later in the day Elias went to visit Dominguez in the local hospital, where the doctor in charge asked him if they might be looking at a case of cyanide poisoning. Elias said no, repeated that there was nothing but mud and water in that tank, then drifted back to his office where he filled out safety forms for all his employees for years back, all signed in the same handwriting and with the same ink. Then he went to work on his records, whiting out each and every mention of cyanide.

That's when Joe Hilldorfer and Bob Wojnicz, special agents with the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle, got called in on the case. It was their job to investigate crimes against the environment, and, although much environmental law had yet to be tested, the pair was idealistic and game.

Hilldorfer and his co-author, Robert Dugoni, have found the perfect little story to illuminate an enormous conflict -- the heedless assaults that industry inflicts on this planet and our population vs. the practical need that humans have both for industrial products and the profits that accrue from them. There's not an ounce of liberal hand-wringing here, no name-calling about the corporate rape of innocent Earth, no railing against this political administration or that, not even a de facto canonization of the obscure worker who lost much of the use of his mind and body during his immersion in that death tank. This is just a tale of a few good guys against one bad guy.

Here "evil" is played to the hilt, just by that Allan Elias, a scourge, a plague, a gleefully nasty bottom-feeder whose very badly led life had brought him to the town of Soda Springs and this pile of noxious, noisome junk he called "Evergreen." Hilldorfer and Wojnicz went up against him. They interviewed everyone involved, which took about a year, then turned it all over to David Uhlmann, an idealistic federal prosecutor who lived to nail bad guys. After the investigation came the trial and then the aftermath of the trial, which seems to have dragged on forever.

"The Cyanide Canary" is a marvelously suspenseful tale full of male camaraderie, long drives to small towns in the middle of nowhere, suspicious laborers terrified of losing their jobs, the saintly family of Scott Dominguez and, on the other side, that leering, scummy, remorselessly lying Elias, who in trying to avoid justice makes as many moves as an octopus in a handbag.

Of course, Elias was a stooge of a larger corporation; even after his Evergreen Resources closed, he remained on the payroll of Kerr-McGee, to the tune of more than $41,000 a month. But railing against big business is the stuff of sermons. "The Cyanide Canary" is a bona fide thriller pitting joyous, decent good guys against a villain without a scintilla of redeeming social value. Who wins in this robust scenario? Read the book and find out.


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