Revisiting Idaho's toxic tragedy


On August 27, 1996, 20-year-old Scott Dominguez climbed through the 22-inch entry hole of a 25,000-gallon storage tank, which it was his job to clean. He was more than a little afraid. His job at Evergreen Resources, a dilapidated Soda Springs, Idaho plant that converted mining waste into fertilizer through dubious industrial processes, was Dominguez's best shot at saving money to marry his fiancée. But the job was also utterly devoid of safety equipment; the tank lacked ventilation and Dominguez had developed acute flu-like symptoms after working a single day in it. Dominguez and his fellow workers repeatedly aired their worries to Evergreen's owner and supervisor, Allan Elias, but he assured them that the sludge they were toiling in was as harmless as mud and water. Elias, a highly educated business mogul with years of experience dealing with industrial waste, was wrong--and he knew it.

Dominguez's progression from uneasy to unconscious was brief and quiet. Within minutes, fumes from the noxious hydrogen cyanide about which Elias had not informed him had disabled Dominguez's ability to absorb oxygen into his bloodstream. After hours of heroic rescue efforts by coworkers and local firemen, he was presumed to be dying. Today, he suffers from permanent, debilitating and progressive brain damage, which impedes his ability to speak or move. Elias, conversely, is serving a 17-year federal prison sentence after being convicted of four separate environmental crimes, including knowing endangerment of Dominguez.

United States vs. Allan Elias stands as one of the great triumphs of environmental law by the U.S. judicial system, and in particular, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environmental Crimes Section (ECS) of the Department of Justice. It is also the subject of a lengthy new book, The Cyanide Canary: A Story of Injustice, co-written by Robert Dugoni and EPA investigator Joseph Hilldorfer. In the years between the event and the trial, though, news coverage of Elias's crimes was nonexistent both locally and nationally. Even when wind of the trial came to Boise Weekly reporter Andrew Scutro in 1999, he recalled recently, "[A contact at the U.S. Attorney's Office] mentioned, as an aside, 'There's a human interest thing going on, but you probably wouldn't be interested in it. It's not really hard news.' Once we looked into it a little ... I realized I was lucky to get it." Within days, Scutro had interviewed Dominguez and other Evergreen workers, the federal prosecutors bringing the case, and even visited the recently defunct fertilizer plant before breaking the horrific story. "[Evergreen] looked very experimental; very dangerous," he remembered. "It looked like a place that you or I or any person would not want to work unless we had to."

That "had to" is the crux of the Elias case. Dominguez and his fellow laborers were the type of workers who had no other job options locally, and had little choice but to submit to Elias' egregious commands. Even when he illegally dumped industrial waste and forged OSHA permits; even when Dominguez came home with his clothes nearly melted after cleaning up acid spills at Evergreen, he continued to go to work. Elias repaid this loyalty by lying to local doctors who suspected that cyanide was to blame for Scott's condition, forging safety training records and telling EPA inspectors (including Hilldorfer) that his "lazy and stupid" employees were responsible for the incident.

"Scott was, and is, a microcosm of a much larger problem," explained Dugoni to BW. "Many people get injured by waste in our water or air, but a lot of times those people do not manifest those problems until much later. Scott is a very visual victim." A very visual victim, both on the stand and as an ever-present motivator was precisely what the ECS and U.S. Attorneys needed to get the rarest of environmental charges, knowing endangerment, to stick on Elias.

"Elias is one of the most significant prosecutions of an environmental crime by an individual defendant, and it remains the longest sentence we've ever imposed for environmental crime" explained David Uhlmann, lead prosecutor against Elias, current chief of the ECS and a central character in the book. "There are only a handful of cases where that charge is used, and even fewer that have gone to trial. The Elias case is a classic case of knowing endangerment--in many ways, it's sort of the prototype for the charge."

Four years after the end of Elias' lengthy and contentious trial, Uhlmann admitted that the case hasn't yet opened the door to increased applicability of the charge of knowing endangerment, or the stiff sentences that the charge entails. On the contrary, he described the case as "setting a rather high bar [for future attempts at prosecution], because we had such good evidence about Elias' knowledge." He added, "There are three legacies to the case. First, it demonstrates that environmental crimes are real crimes with real victims. Second, the case increased public awareness of the dangers of environmental crime and the importance of vigorously prosecuting environmental criminals like Elias. Third, it focused greater attention on the connection that often exists between environmental crime and worker safety. That is not something we had focused on historically."

Uhlmann's concern for workers is echoed by George Breitsameter, one of two assistant U.S. Attorneys from Idaho who partnered with Uhlmann in prosecuting Elias. Breitsameter explained, "In some ways Elias was even more a worker safety case than an environmental case. I know that worker safety groups continue to use it as a means to advise people that if they violate the law, and someone dies or is injured as a result, they will be held criminally accountable."

Due to it its wide-ranging impact, both lawyers cite Elias as a benchmark case for Idaho, as well as for the EPA and ECS. But Dugoni and Hilldorfer, for their parts, largely avoid railing against traditional enemies like big business or government regulations throughout The Cyanide Canary, choosing instead to power the story with highly detailed characterizations of the trial's major players--they even give the character list at the start of the book the theatrical title of "Dramatis Personae." The prosecutors and investigators are heroes; Allan Elias is a villain--and at least in the book, ditto for his legal defenders. The justice system is fair but harsh, and the Elias case is portrayed as the singular event that causes the EPA and ECS to legally come of age. It is a tense, stylish thriller, full of driven individuals developing powerful bonds and according to Uhlmann, "It tells a good story about what we do. Even though the book is titled 'A Story of Injustice,' the prosecution was a triumph of justice, and of everything good about the justice system."

Robert Dugoni, Joseph Hilldorfer and Scott Dominguez will attend a book signing for The Cyanide Canary at Iconoclast in Ketchum on Oct. 15 at 5 p.m.