Working Paper 94-62 February 1994

By Beth McElroy

This paper was written in conjunction with the Fall 1993 Natural Resources and Environmental Policy Seminar of the University of Colorado Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate Program in Environmental Policy. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium or the University. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

© 1994. Beth McElroy. Do not reprint without permission.

Syntex Chemicals Inc. can be described as the company that Boulder, Colorado loves to hate. Residents of the community, including local citizen action groups, have long kept a watchful eye on the pharmaceutical manufacturing company, particularly over the past several years. Syntex first gained notoriety in the early 1980's, for its involvement with a hazardous waste landfill near Lyons (Pochna, 3/13/90). In the years since, Syntex has given opponents several other reasons for disdain, including toxic spills, groundwater contamination, and consistent ranking as one of the top air polluters in the state.

It can be argued that if Syntex was not located in Boulder, Colorado, that it probably would not be as controversial a site as it is. According to Andrea Grant of Boulder's Environmental Communications Associates, a consultant for Syntex, "the belief here is quality of life comes first, business comes second." (qtd. in Hunter, 7/7/93) In Boulder, industrial companies like Syntex are the first to get targeted as standing in the way of maintaining a high quality of living. Compared to the amount of emissions released by other Syntex facilities around the world, the Boulder facility's emissions are low (Hunter, 7/7/93). However, relative to Boulder County, its emissions are high.

Recently, Syntex has taken several steps towards improving its standing within the community. It has cut air emissions by 40 percent since 1989, and in 1990 it made a "Good Neighbor Pledge" to cut 1989 emissions levels by 50 percent by 1994. A community advisory panel has been formed, and a Responsible Care program has been implemented on site (Hunter, 7/7/93). A proposed expansion, which includes a fume incinerator that Syntex claims will cut its air emissions by 85 percent, is currently stalled pending approval by the city. An overdue risk assessment of the proposed incinerator is reported to be out in about a month (Foster, 11/23/93). Its results will play a big role in determining whether Syntex's expansion plans are approved.

At this point in time it may be too soon to really determine whether Syntex's recent actions are helping to dispel its image as "the bad guy." Its environmental record is indisputably poor, and it will be no easy feat to convince the concerned public that this expansion and new incineration technology will be beneficial to the community. One positive outcome of this controversy is that it has made the city of Boulder rethink its policy (or lack thereof) with regard to industry and the environment (Foster, 11/23/93). There are numerous lessons to be learned from the Syntex case, as a closer look at the manner in which this case has evolved over the years will show.

A Dubious Past

Syntex began operation in Boulder in 1966, long before federal regulations such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Clean Air Act (CAA) had been developed (YMCA et al. vs. Syntex). The company is a subsidiary of the Syntex Corporation, an international health care company with U.S. Headquarters in Palo Alto, CA (PR Newswire, 7/23/91). The original Syntex facility, doing business as Arapaho Chemicals, was located on the southeast corner of 28th and Walnut Streets (Polk's, 1966). It built its present facility in Flatirons Industrial Park in the mid-1970's and renamed the company Syntex in 1982 (Polk's, 1972).

During the early operating years of Syntex, the risks associated with manufacturing chemicals were not commonly known. As such, acceptable levels of exposure to hazardous substances had not been determined. Furthermore, there were no constraints on industry emissions. Consequently, Syntex was able to operate in an unchecked manner for a number of years.

The first time that Syntex found itself in a negative light was in 1980, when it was discovered that Arapaho Chemicals had dumped industrial solvents in its Lyons landfill from 1965 to 1976 (Pochna, 3/13/90). Both state and local health officials and Syntex discussed ways to contain the contamination and clean it up, and in 1988, Syntex "spent approximately $10 million ridding the area of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, acetone ethylene dichloride, and tetrachloroethyline." (Pochna, 3/13/90)

Although Syntex's initial encounter with an angry public involved an off-site location, all subsequent controversy has involved activities at its current 2075 N. 55th Street location. In 1988, groundwater contamination of Syntex property, as well as three surrounding business lots, was reported to federal and state health agencies (YMCA et al. vs. Syntex). There have been three lawsuits brought against Syntex for groundwater contamination. One of them, filed in 1990 by the three parties whose property was contaminated, alleged that officials at Syntex were aware of the contamination as early as 1986 but neither reported it to health agencies, nor informed the affected property owners, nor did anything to contain the contamination until 1988 (YMCA et al. vs. Syntex). Syntex denied these allegations, and the case was settled out of court. Groundwater remediation and monitoring has been ongoing since 1988, under orders by both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Health (CDH) (Pochna, 5/8/92).

In addition to groundwater contamination, there have also been toxic spills at the Syntex site. In December 1992, a 3,650 gallon potassium-hydroxide spill was reported to both the National Response Center and the EPA (Hoover, 12/2/92). Although the spill was contained on site and neither groundwater contamination nor any threat to human health resulted from it, it cost Syntex almost $300,000 to clean it up (Hoover, 12/2/92). It also did little to assuage skeptics' opinions that Syntex is a dangerous place.

In September 1993, the EPA ordered Syntex to open its books so the agency can investigate two alleged 1982 spills of hazardous chemicals that threatened the groundwater (Roberts, 9/1/93). The allegations were made by a former employee, Richard Hughes, who claimed that two spills he witnessed were ignored by his managers despite evidence that hazardous chemicals were involved. Although the EPA is not concerned about health threats, because the groundwater is already being monitored, the investigation will determine whether the releases occurred and whether they were reported to the necessary agencies (Roberts, 9/1/93).

Despite these groundwater contamination issues, it is Syntex's air emissions that have really given it a negative standing in the community. Since 1988, when companies were first required to report annual routine releases of selected chemicals under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, Syntex has ranked among the top three toxic air polluters in the state (BREATHE, 1993). The most recent figures by EPA indicate that in 1991 Syntex released 481,000 pounds of toxic waste into the air, the most of any company in the state of Colorado (Wilmsen, 11/17/93).

In November 1992, Syntex shut down its hazardous waste incinerator, the only solvent burner in the state, because a test had shown that it might be violating federal limits on the emission of chromium, a carcinogenic metal (Wilmsen, 11/17/92). The incinerator had been used since the early 1980's to burn spent solvents created in Syntex's manufacturing process. According to former Syntex Environmental Affairs Director Ellen Arnold, burning the waste on site eliminated the danger of transporting hazardous waste. It also acted as an alternative energy source, because steam from the boiler helped to heat the plant (Pochna, 4/6/92) The emissions test on the incinerator was required by the EPA's Boiler Industrial Furnace regulations, which were instituted in 1991. Had the incinerator remained in operation, Syntex would have needed a new permit for it; previously, it had not been permitted (Wilmsen, 11/17/92).

The most current Syntex controversy surrounds a Planned Unit Development (P.U.D.) permit given to Syntex in 1982. According to a Syntex fact sheet, this P.U.D. outlined a master site plan for Syntex's growth for a period of seven to ten years (Syntex Fact Sheet, 1993). In 1992, Syntex requested that the P.U.D. be amended to allow for the construction of a $12 million trigeneration unit, "an emissions abatement device that would reduce Syntex's total air emissions by 85 percent over current levels, even after the planned expansion." (Syntex Fact Sheet, 1993) The trigeneration unit would be a joint project of Syntex and Public Service Company of Colorado. "Trigeneration is cogeneration (the generation of steam and electricity for manufacturing purposes) tied to a fume incinerator (the "tri" component) that will serve as a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) destruction device." (Syntex Fact Sheet, 1993) The unit would be built as part of a 241,000 square foot expansion. The city has not yet decided whether to allow this expansion, and is currently awaiting the results of a risk assessment to help in its decision.

Who's Involved

Given its activities over the last couple of decades, it is not surprising that residents of the community do not trust Syntex. Its largest critic, a local group called Boulder Residents for the Elimination of Airborne Toxics and Hazardous Emissions (BREATHE), was formed in September 1991 (BREATHE, 1992). The group is adamantly opposed to Syntex's expansion plan, citing the fact that because Syntex does not seem to be able to control its pollution problems at its current size, it should not be allowed to expand to an even greater size. Members question the efficiency of the proposed fume incinerator, and worry that new health risks will threaten the community if it is built (Shellenberger, 11/16/93)

In addition to BREATHE, the other major stakeholders in this case include Boulder city government, residents of Boulder, EPA, CDH, and of course, employees of Syntex. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Citizens Action Group have also been involved with Syntex over the years. While the interests of all these groups do not seem that different from one another, the positions, particularly among BREATHE, the city, and Syntex, are quite different.

The interest of BREATHE is very straightforward--to preserve the air quality in Boulder. BREATHE sees Syntex as a major threat to the community's environment, and its position is that Syntex should not be allowed to expand, including building the fume incinerator, unless it can be proven that neither will mean increased health risks for the community. A BREATHE fact sheet outlines seven steps that must be taken before the Syntex permit for expansion is approved. These steps are: 1) a dramatic reduction of emissions at the existing plant, 2) a process-based rather than generic permit, subject to modification if Syntex changes processes in the future, 3) complete, ongoing analysis and disclosure of wastes at the entire plant, 4) ongoing community control of pollutants emitted currently and in the future, 5) specific, acceptable timetables for phase-out of all dangerous chlorinated compounds, 6) a waste reduction plan for all processes at the entire plant, 7) and an exploration of alternative technologies to burning (BREATHE, 1993).

An interest of the city is also to preserve the air quality in Boulder, but it must be concerned with economic interests as well. Syntex employs almost three hundred people, and as a pharmaceutical company, is seen as a company working to benefit society. Syntex is a generous contributor to county causes such as the Boulder County United Way and the Boulder County AIDS Project (Syntex Fact Sheet, 1993). In August 1993, Syntex was selected over all other Boulder businesses and recognized for outstanding service to the Boulder community by the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, Boulder Development Commission, and the city of Boulder (Syntex Fact Sheet, 1993).

The city's position is that if Syntex's expansion can meet the acceptable risk standards set by the city, it will probably be allowed to expand, particularly if the fume incinerator would indeed cut Syntex's emissions by 85 percent. A risk assessment is being conducted to give more insight into the potential effects of this project. The city has hired a consultant, Stephen Foster of Seacor Inc., to work with the city and Syntex on this issue (Pochna, 12/11/92).

The interests of the residents of Boulder are a combination of those of BREATHE, the city government, and Syntex, since the population of Boulder includes members of BREATHE, members of the city council and other government agencies, and employees of Syntex. Those not affiliated with any other stakeholder group may be less informed, as well as less active in the controversy, than those who are, but nonetheless, all residents will be affected by any decisions made regarding Syntex. Like their interests, the positions of the residents most likely span those of the other major stakeholders, from opposing the expansion to favoring the expansion, including those in the middle who have no strong opinion either way.

The interests of both the EPA and the CDH are to ensure that Syntex operates within federal and state regulations. Their positions are most likely that Syntex can expand as it likes, as long as it stays within the regulations. Although the trigeneration unit is a required device in Europe, it is not as established a technology here in the United States. There are currently three other fume incinerators in Boulder, none of which have spawned public outcry, so it is obviously a viable option for Syntex (Foster, 11/17/93).

The interests of Syntex are to have a successful and profitable company, but also to not be loathed by the community in which it exists. Over the past several years, Syntex has made controlling and preventing pollution a priority (Syntex Fact Sheet, 1993). Its position is that it should be allowed to expand, because it will increase production (and profits), as well as build the trigeneration unit, because it will significantly help to reduce its air emissions.

Technical Issues

A multitude of technical information is inherent in a case as longstanding as Syntex, and inherent in any situation involving technical information is the dilemma of how to interpret the information.

The most important piece of technical information in this case is the current risk assessment, which is being conducted by the Radian Corporation in Denver (BREATHE, 1993). Although it will not be the only factor on which the ultimate decision will be based, it will play a significant role in the decision. Because risk assessments in general mean different things to different people, the results of this one will not necessarily identify a cut and dry solution to this controversy. Even if the risk assessment determines that there is a one in ten million level of risk associated with the proposed fume incinerator, there will be people who think this amount of risk is unacceptable. According to Stephen Foster, the city's consultant for this case, the background risk for developing cancer in the United States is one in four, one in three for smokers, and the EPA standard for risk at hazardous-waste disposal facilities is less than one in a million (Foster, 11/17/93) Given these statistics, it is obvious that the public perception that Syntex is a dangerous place is a strong one. It would be interesting to attend a BREATHE meeting and see how many participants were smoking as they condemned Syntex's toxic air emissions.

Aside from the risk assessment, the technical information that has been the most important since its introduction is the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) information furnished by the EPA. Since 1988, as part of the 1986 Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act (SARA), the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act has required that companies report their toxic emissions to the EPA (BREATHE, 1992). This information has been emphasized by both Syntex and BREATHE. Syntex officials use this information to illustrate that emissions have been reduced by 30 to 40 percent over the last several years. BREATHE members use this information to illustrate that Syntex is consistently ranked as one of the top air polluters in the state. Both groups make valid arguments using the same data.

Public Perceptions

Despite its multitude, the technical information can easily be forgotten in a case such as this, in which public perceptions are strongly influenced by everyday experiences. There are some very noticeable signs that Syntex is doing something harmful to the environment for which no documentation is needed to confirm, and for which documentation that indicated otherwise would not be considered credible. People who live or work near Syntex, or who walk, bicycle, or drive past the site, commonly complain of a foul smell being emitted from the plant.

In general, the "Good Neighbor Pledge" made by Syntex in 1991, to cut emissions by 50% from 1989 figures by 1994, has been met with much contempt from the public. At an April 1992 open city meeting, arranged by Syntex to educate concerned residents about the relatively benign nature of its now defunct hazardous waste incinerator, about sixty outraged residents from different parts of the city showed up to voice their opinions of Syntex. Boulder resident James Sweeney stated that he has been woken up in the early hours of the morning by a stifling stench, and that "you can't go to sleep at night. It's that bad." (Pochna, 4/6/92) At that same meeting, Gail Trenberth, a nurse who lives about half a mile from the Syntex plant, said she often sees children holding their noses in the playground of nearby Eisenhower Elementary School because of a smell emanating from the plant (Pochna, 4/6/92). For people who have experiences like these, technical information indicating that Syntex is not harming the environment is difficult to swallow.

Education Strategies

Clearly, a strategy for educating the public on what exactly is going on with Syntex, and how the city is dealing with the situation, would be beneficial to all stakeholders. In fact, there are currently several methods by which those who are uninformed can become informed about this issue. Some of these methods are more neutral than others. BREATHE has several fact sheets and a pamphlet that detail what it is and what its goals are, which are available to anyone who is interested. BREATHE's information also includes all the highlights of Syntex's blunders over the years, and is obviously biased against it.

Syntex has developed several strategies for keeping the public informed. It has voluntarily implemented a Responsible Care Program. According to a Syntex pamphlet on Responsible Care, this program is an initiative of the Chemical Manufacturers' Association (CMA), of which Syntex is a member (RC pamphlet). The six-code management practice program includes a community awareness and emergency response (CAER) code. The pamphlet states that the CAER code calls for "open dialogue with employees, citizens, legislators, and other audiences critical to the continued safe operation of our facility." (RC pamphlet) The other codes focus on pollution prevention, process safety, distribution, employee health and safety, and product stewardship.

The Community Advisory Panel (CAP) Syntex created in 1991 is another method by which citizens have gotten involved with this issue. The panel spans a spectrum of opinion between its environmentalist and "scientist" poles, according to Marshal Caplan, one of the panel facilitators (Hunter, 7/7/93). The expansion issue has monopolized its meetings for months, and Don Fitzgerald, director of environmental affairs, hopes to use the CAP to review Syntex's CAER code implementation (Hunter, 7/7/93).

Although the city of Boulder does not currently have any set education program on the Syntex controversy, it has offered several public forums on the issues of Syntex and air pollution in Boulder over the past several years. The city planning board has also conducted several study sessions to determine how the expansion permit should be handled. Interested citizens can also find information at the Boulder Public Library, which maintains a large of correspondence and other documentation pertaining to Syntex.

Syntex's Future in Boulder

The Syntex case is an interesting one, largely because of the geographic location in which Syntex is operating. The unique beauty of the city of Boulder, nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, has attracted residents who are intent on maintaining the high quality of living that brought them here in the first place. These residents see Syntex as a threat to that quality of life and will be probably be displeased with anything that Syntex does, particularly if it includes expanding its facilities and building another incinerator. Evidence that Syntex's problems in Boulder are unique to its geographic location is seen by comparing it to other Syntex locations around the country. According to Connie Holubar, communications manager at Syntex, a Springfield, MO, Syntex plant tried to install the same type of fume incinerator, and the entire process took only two weeks (Holubar, 11/22/93). It has been well over a year since Syntex first announced its plans to build a fume incinerator in Boulder (Syntex Fact Sheet, 1993).

Implementing a Responsible Care program is a sign that Syntex is trying to improve relations with the community. According to Syntex's pamphlet on Responsible Care, the program is designed to focus on the continuous improvement of health, safety and environmental performance. "It establishes a framework for determining the potential impacts of everything we do. It leads us to more open communications with the community--and among ourselves. It will focus us beyond regulated requirements, and show our community that we take our business seriously." (RC pamphlet)

Holubar stated that the Boulder Syntex facility has gone beyond CMA guidelines in implementing its Responsible Care program, and that Syntex's other facilities around the world will eventually model their programs after the Boulder facility's. Holubar believes that in time, Syntex's other facilities will face similar opposition to what the Boulder plant is currently facing. Although CMA requires that a Responsible Care program be implemented by all of its members, Holubar stated that Syntex implemented it as more of a voluntary effort. Because it does not rely on CMA for business networking the way most other members do Syntex could have dropped its membership and not have had to implement a Responsible Care program. She said that it was a good way to self-police and go beyond the regulations, because CMA will kick noncomplying members out of its association and highly publicize that it has done so (Holubar, 11/22/93).

Although employee morale has improved since the Responsible Care program's initiation, officials realize that citizens' resentment towards Syntex will not just disappear. According to Gerald Hoerig, president of Syntex Chemicals, "You're not going to be able to turn public opinion around in a few years--it's a long process." (qtd. in Hunter, 7/7/93) Although the Responsible Care program may not have been implemented in time to improve Syntex's image in the current incinerator controversy, if the company takes the program to heart and follows through with educating the public, then future plans may be met with less contempt.


The Syntex expansion controversy has yet to be resolved, and a resolution may not occur anytime soon. Although the Syntex case does not offer a good model to be followed in future conflicts between the city of Boulder and industrial companies, there are several lessons that can be learned from this case study. One of the first lessons that comes to mind is to not operate a chemical plant in an urban area like Boulder, particularly one whose natural beauty is a major attraction to living there, and one in which the residents are known for their tenacity in fighting causes. Considering that Boulder is an affluent city with substantial political power, and that hazardous chemical plants usually end up in towns with less money and little political clout, it is rather surprising that Syntex has lasted here as long as it has. It is obvious that the citizens and government of Boulder do have some influence over Syntex, and it is likely that whatever decision is made regarding Syntex's expansion will reflect the concerns of the public, including members of BREATHE.

Another lesson to be learned from this case is that cities should be proactive, rather than reactive, in defining limits of acceptable risk with regard to industry and the environment. Because the city of Boulder had not previously set standards for acceptable risk, this Syntex permit has sent the city scrambling to determine whether it should create its policy on an industry wide basis, or determine its policy on a case-by-case basis. The fact that the city had no standards at the time that this conflict arose has made the situation drag on for months and months beyond what it should have taken to make a decision. On a positive note, the city's experience with Syntex should help to pave a smoother way for future industrial development issues.

On a similar note, industries such as Syntex that are known to be manufacturing or creating hazardous chemicals should be proactive, rather than reactive, in dealing with the community surrounding them. If Syntex had taken greater steps towards educating the public and reducing its emissions before it decided to more than double the size of its facility and build another incinerator, citizens may have been less indignant towards the expansion.

In defense of both the city of Boulder and Syntex, it seems that they have been caught in the backlog created by the the introduction of federal and state environmental regulations in the past decade or so. Because things like air emissions and hazardous waste disposal were unregulated for so long, and the time during which they have been regulated is comparatively short, it is understandable that this case evolved in as reactive a manner as it did. This is certainly not the only instance in the United States in which this type of controversy has occurred; rather, this happens to be Boulder's first experience with setting standards for industry and the environment. With any luck, future situations in Boulder, as well as other areas around the country, will be handled better because of the experience obtained from those like the Syntex case.


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