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A Black Eye for Big Blue

Local Matters


Published July 11, 2005 at 6:28 p.m.

How environmentally "clean" are IBM's semiconductor clean rooms? Not very -- and they may be making IBM employees sick. That was the charge leveled last week by the Toxics Action Center (TAC), which "honored" the IBM facility in Essex Junction with one of its "Dirty Dozen" awards for 2004. The Montpelier-based environmental group accused Big Blue of being "a bad corporate citizen" for exposing workers to toxic chemicals, for not adequately informing them of the health risks, and for reducing employee safety and training programs. TAC also charged IBM with polluting the Winooski River with hazardous chemicals, compromising the health and safety of local residents and Lake Champlain.

But IBM-Vermont spokesperson Jeff Couture says he is "baffled" by the accusations, calling them "unfair and groundless." He contends that IBM has an excellent environmental record at its Essex Junction facility and consistently meets or exceeds all state and federal standards. Moreover, he calls TAC's most serious allegation -- that current and former IBM employees in Vermont suffer from higher-than-normal rates of cancer, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma --"inflammatory and wrong."

Is IBM acting mean or green? That depends upon whom you ask. Earl Mongeon is a 25-year IBM veteran and an organizer with the Alliance@IBM, a nationwide union of IBM employees. Mongeon claims that in the last several years, the company has scaled back its safety training for workers who handle dangerous chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid, ammonium hydroxide and sulfuric acid, which are used to manufacture and clean computer chips.

Mongeon, who works in the clean rooms, says he's heard from "a lot" of fellow employees who have developed brain tumors or other rare forms of cancer, including some employees who are only in their twenties and thirties. But Mongeon also admits that these reports are anecdotal in nature and haven't been quantified yet.

"A lot of people are afraid," he says. "Even though they're willing to share this information with us, they're scared to speak up because they don't want to be the next target if there are more layoffs."

As a result, the Alliance@IBM and TAC have begun a health survey of current and former IBMers and their families. In recent years, employees at other IBM facilities around the country have sued the company, alleging that toxic chemicals they were exposed to in the workplace caused their cancers.

Assisting in the health survey is Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist with the Boston University School of Public Health. Clapp is perhaps best known as the cancer expert who helped residents of Woburn, Massachusetts, sue W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods for contaminating their drinking water. That lawsuit was later the basis for the book and film, A Civil Action.

Recently, Clapp testified as an expert witness in a lawsuit brought by employees at IBM's semiconductor plant in San Jose, California. Clapp's analysis showed that workers at the San Jose facility were experiencing elevated rates of several types of cancer, including brain tumors. But IBM lawyers successfully challenged Clapp's findings, calling them "junk science" and getting a judge to rule them inadmissible. The case was eventually settled out of court.

If IBM employees in Vermont are claiming that they're less healthy than the rest of the population, IBM spokesman Couture asserts that other research shows just the opposite. Epidemiologists at the University of Alabama and Harvard University looked at cancer and mortality rates from 1965 to 1999 among employees at three IBM facilities: Essex Junction, San Jose and East Fishkill, N.Y.

That study, which was funded by IBM, found that employees at all three facilities had fewer deaths from all forms of cancer when compared to the general population. The researchers also found that the overall mortality rate among IBM-Vermont employees was 35 percent lower than the statewide average, and cancer rates were 16 percent lower than other Vermonters.

Regarding TAC's claim that IBM is harming the Winooski River, Couture asserts that the Essex Junction facility has done an excellent job of reducing its water emissions. In fact, just last week a team of IBM-Vermont employees received a Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence and Pollution Prevention for developing a process that significantly reduces the use of hazardous chemicals.

"The claims that were made against IBM are just wrong. They're uninformed and inaccurate," Couture says. "I don't know why they're picking on IBM other than we're big and they're attempting to make us look bad and generate publicity."

Each year for the last eight years, TAC has given out its Dirty Dozen awards to companies it considers New England's worst polluters. Other 2004 Dirty Dozen recipients include the Entergy Nuclear-Vermont Yankee power plant in Vernon and the International Paper mill in Fort Ticonderoga, New York.