The EPA’s case against Willamette Industries is about a corporation that has polluted the air around its plants for years and years. At its heart, it is about the health of people who live around those plants.

Several years ago, a Little Rock lawyer named Buddy Slate decided to do something about it. He sued Willamette Industries on behalf of 130 people who live in the tiny town of Malvern, about 45 miles north of the Arkansas capitol.

Willamette Industries purchased the Malvern plant in the early 1980s, retooling it to manufacture a product known as “medium density fiberboard (MDF).” It’s the stuff of cheap furniture, mobile home interiors and the like. Willamette Industries uses a number of chemicals in the manufacturing process, including one that became an issue in the litigation, formaldehyde.

To make its fiberboard products, the company takes wood particulate matter, grinds it into a super-fine paste and adds resins and glues, including urea formaldehyde. Some formaldehyde soaked particulates and other particulates are discharged into the air.

“We had videotapes of it falling like snow,” Slate says. Neighbors say the wood dust has been raining down on their homes for 17 years. It became common for people to find their cars covered with the stuff in the morning.

“This plant has spewed hundreds of thousands of tons of particulate matter into the immediate environment since the plant started up,” Slate says. “What this particulate did was hang in the air, and just rain on these people and stay with them for days. We could find no study in the world that would tell us the health effects on that kind of pollution.”

The particulates are so small that once they lodge in the lung, they take permanent residence there. “That particulate matter is chemically impregnated with formaldehyde, so what happens is the particulate is losing its formaldehyde in the deep recesses of the lung. It goes directly into tissue and into the blood.”

To get a sense of what biological process is occurring in these victims, consider that formaldehyde is used as an embalming agent in corpses, Slate says. “It is a cell killer and fixater.”

When Willamette Industries doubled the size of the Malvern plant in 1987, Slate says, “everybody went nuts. It used to rain down several inches of that crap every day back in the early days. The local community was inundated daily.”

Slate claims that Willamette Industries misstated the amount of the pollution in its air quality permit. “What we found is they hid in 1987 that the particulate had formaldehyde in it.”

In its investigation, the EPA said Willamette Industries made modifications to the plant from1988 to1995 that doubled its size, making it the largest MDF plant in the United States. However, the company failed to properly identify emissions of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The company also failed to meet permitted emission limits and obtain appropriate permits. The EPA identified similar violations at 14 other plants in Oregon, Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina.

In court, Slate argued that the formaldehyde had damaged the health of his clients. “We had people with bladder cancer, lung problems,” he said. A jury awarded a $226,000 judgment to one family of five. Willamette Industries appealed.

On appeal, the company argued that there were no studies that proved formaldehyde-soaked particulate matter can harm health, even when permanently lodged in the lungs. On a 2-1 vote, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis agreed.

Slate refiled the cases as nuisance claims against the company. He couldn’t argue that anybody’s health was endangered, but he could say that the plant was a nuisance. He won an undisclosed amount in a settlement.

“Health claims are pretty hard to litigate under the Clean Air Act,” Slate says. “Those people have never got a penny, but they did get formaldehyde in their urine.”

Willamette Industries has installed better pollution control equipment at the plant, and Slate says, the problem has been about 60 percent corrected.

There’s even hope Willamette Industries might “have a heart,” Slate says. “They put in a community car wash to clean the particulates off.”