Under the Covers

Coach McCartney got into bed with one of Denver's biggest polluters, but Pillow Kingdom's neighbors are proving to be a tougher sell.

On a bright winter afternoon in northeast Park Hill, elementary-school students stream out of the Margaret Smith Renaissance Academy. While some mothers wait impatiently for their children to climb into the backseats of idling cars, most of the kids are walking to the trim brick homes and well-kept yards for which Park Hill is known. Three boys engage in an impromptu snowball fight, filling the air with shrieks of mock terror and high-pitched laughter.

It's a picture of innocence that makes it hard to believe this neighborhood plays host to one of Colorado's biggest polluters. Just three blocks away from the school sits the Pillow Kingdom furniture factory, at 39th Avenue and Kearney Street. The unmistakable smell of paint wafts over the block around the factory, and the fenced-in, two-story concrete building carries signs warning "Guard dogs on duty." The plant is the major production facility for Pillow Kingdom, the country's largest waterbed retailer. The privately held Denver company operates more than 200 Big Sur Waterbeds, Oak Express and Kidz Bedzzz stores around the country.

Pillow Kingdom emitted 159,869 pounds of toxics from the Kearney Street plant in 1994, according to figures the company provided to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Those releases included 51,547 pounds of toluene and 42,220 pounds of methyl ethyl ketone, chemicals commonly found in paints and solvents. Both substances have been linked to dizziness, headaches and sinus problems, and methyl ethyl ketone has been shown to cause low birth weights in animals, according to state and federal health agencies.

The EPA in 1994 ranked Pillow Kingdom as the seventh-biggest polluter in Colorado, sharing the top-ten list with better-known corporate names such as Coors Brewing Company in Golden, Kodak in Windsor, and Syntex Chemicals, Inc., in Boulder. It ranked first for companies located inside the Denver city limits. The EPA hasn't yet released the top-ten list for 1995, but preliminary figures show that the facility on Kearney Street, together with Pillow Kingdom's second plant a few blocks away on Forest Street, released 163,704 pounds of toxics into the air in 1995.

Using large amounts of chemicals is unavoidable in the mass production of furniture. But when it comes to toxic emissions, Pillow Kingdom's critics say the company has been asleep at the switch compared to other Colorado manufacturers. "They have not committed to making the reductions other polluters have," says Jon Goldin-Dubois, program director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG). "They're using chemicals that irritate the skin and eyes and are known to cause birth defects in animals and possibly in humans. I wouldn't rest easy if Pillow Kingdom were in my neighborhood."

Although Pillow Kingdom has never been tied to specific health problems in the neighborhood, community activists say they're nonetheless concerned about the amount of pollution in the area. "When we have community meetings, this always comes up," says Betty Shaw, president of Park Hill for a Safe Neighborhood. "Sometimes I wake up with a headache. We're breathing this mess."

And so far, Pillow Kingdom has done little to reassure residents. The company, owned by Littleton businessman Barney Visser and his family, keeps an extremely low profile, even though it enjoys an association with one of the city's most high-profile personalities: former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, who's employed as a "motivational consultant" for Pillow Kingdom's Big Sur Waterbeds subsidiary. Despite its association with the area's most prominent "Promise Keeper"--McCartney helps inspire the Big Sur sales force--Visser's firm is making few promises regarding its toxic emissions. Pillow Kingdom has neglected to join a voluntary state program aimed at helping Colorado's major polluters cut emissions. It has also snubbed a second pollution-control panel made up of representatives from government, industry and environmental groups.

Every year the state invites the top industrial polluters in Colorado to join the Governor's Pollution Prevention Challenge. Companies in that program explore ways to reduce their use of toxic chemicals, and many of them have dramatically lowered their toxic emissions. A separate but similar nonprofit program, the Pollution Prevention Partnership, has helped prominent Colorado companies such as Coors, Lockheed Martin, Kodak and Conoco cut their toxic releases, sometimes by as much as 50 percent.

A state official says Pillow Kingdom is the only company among Colorado's top ten polluters that has refused to join the governor's pollution-prevention program. "We invited them to join the governor's challenge and didn't get a response," says Parry Burnap, program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Goldin-Dubois says Pillow Kingdom has also been asked to join the Pollution Prevention Partnership but has never responded.

Visser, Pillow Kingdom's president, declined to be interviewed for this article, and the company referred all questions to Denver public-relations specialist Peter Webb. Webb says the company wasn't asked to join the governor's pollution challenge or the partnership. "To the knowledge of company officials, we have never received an invitation to join those programs," says Webb. "Were an invitation extended, we would certainly look at it to see if it fits the company's needs." (Burnap says her records show that letters were sent to the president, CEO and plant manager of every company that was asked to join the program, including Pillow Kingdom.)

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