Under the Covers
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.)
Webb says Pillow Kingdom is already making significant investments in cleaner technology. Its two plants in Park Hill are devoted to furniture production, and most of the company's toxic releases come from paints and finishing products. "The company has set a goal within the next two years to be off the top-ten list," says Webb, who adds that Pillow Kingdom is now converting much of its production to water-based paints, which emit far fewer toxic by-products than traditional solvent-based paints.
However, the company's investment in new technology didn't stem from an overnight conversion to environmentalism. Instead, it appears to have come in response to pressure from federal regulators. In March 1995 the EPA accused Pillow Kingdom of violating the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. That federal law, passed by Congress in 1985, requires manufacturing facilities that process at least 25,000 pounds of toxic chemicals to publicly disclose how many toxics are discharged into the environment. Those figures are the basis for the EPA's annual list of Colorado's top polluters, a roster that can be a CEO's worst nightmare because of the media attention it draws and the close attention paid to the list by many neighborhood groups.
The EPA said in 1995 that Pillow Kingdom had improperly reported its use of half a dozen chemicals and had also failed to maintain proper safety records. The agency proposed a fine of $164,500, one of the highest in the Rocky Mountain region under the Right to Know Act. In November 1995 the EPA announced a settlement under which Pillow Kingdom agreed to pay a $26,960 penalty and promised to spend $255,400 on new equipment to reduce its discharges into the air.
Pillow Kingdom's fray with the feds can be traced back to the Denver Fire Department: It was a tip from firefighters that spurred the EPA into action.
The fire department became concerned because of a series of fires in Pillow Kingdom's dumpsters. "We started receiving complaints from the local fire station," says Lieutenant Dave Spialek, who heads the hazardous-materials division for Denver's fire-prevention unit. "They were continually running over there for numerous small fires in the dumpsters."
Pillow Kingdom was depositing rags soaked with linseed oil in its dumpsters, and Spialek says the rags were breaking out in flames. "Linseed oil is very susceptible to spontaneous combustion," he says. "It reacts to oxygen, and in a confined space, the heat increases until it becomes combustible. They were improperly disposing of those rags."
When Spialek inspected the plant in the spring of 1994, he found other violations that concerned him, including improperly stored chemicals and workers applying flammable lacquers while not wearing masks. The company was cited for violating the fire code, and Spialek was so troubled by what he'd found that he decided to notify the EPA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the state health department.
Several inspectors from those agencies descended on the Pillow Kingdom plant in June 1994 and reportedly received a less-than-friendly reception from managers. "We went out there unannounced," recalls Cheryl Turcotte, the EPA's regional enforcement coordinator. "They showed up one day and found five or six people on their doorstep." Plant officials did the "usual venting," says Turcotte, but "it's hard for them to thwart our efforts other than by starting a fire in the records room."
The EPA inspected Pillow Kingdom's records and discovered lapses in reporting for several different chemicals. OSHA cited the company for violating several health and safety laws, alleging among other things that employees were spraying finishes without wearing safety glasses and that lacquer thinner was being used to clean air-purifying respirators.
Despite what Turcotte describes as the company's initial hostility to the EPA, she says its subsequent agreement to use water-based materials should lead to a decline in emissions. "When we deal with facilities, we deal in adversarial situations," says Turcotte. "It's like the policeman stopping you for speeding. There's not a lot of love involved; we're on opposite sides of the fence. Pillow Kingdom is average in that sense, but they've come along and done the right thing."
Unlike most of the state's other big polluters, though, Pillow Kingdom has been hesitant to let the public in on its plans. Though it's one of the largest Colorado-based retailers, the company shies away from publicity. The firm, which was founded in 1977, has 600 employees in Denver, and Big Sur, its biggest subsidiary, has annual sales of around $100 million, according to the financial reporting firm of Dun & Bradstreet.
Records on file with the Colorado Secretary of State show that company founder and president Barney Visser and other members of the Visser family control what amounts to a furniture empire. Besides Big Sur Waterbeds, the company operates several other furniture retailers, including Oak Express, Kidz Bedzzz, Bedroom Superstore and the Denver Mattress Company. It has more than 200 retail stores around the country and is expanding rapidly. While Pillow Kingdom is headquartered in Park Hill, Visser lives in suburban Littleton, in a home valued at $505,000.
Pillow Kingdom did briefly appear on the media's radar screen in 1995, when Bill McCartney announced that he was going to work for Big Sur. "I was very impressed by that organization's leadership and character--especially on the part of its owner, Barney Visser," the Buffs coach turned Promise Keeper told the Denver Post. McCartney did not return a phone call from Westword; a spokeswoman for Promise Keepers says the organization won't comment on whether Visser is a member.
And many of the people who share the neighborhood with Pillow Kingdom don't share McCartney's enthusiasm for the company. Its failure to join the governor's pollution-reduction program especially bothers some residents. "That's blatant disregard for the people who live here," says north Denver community activist Lorraine Granado. "Pillow Kingdom is one of the worst."
Despite Webb's claim that Pillow Kingdom was never asked to join in state and local pollution programs, other companies didn't wait for an invitation to get involved. The company names associated with those programs read like a who's who of corporate Colorado: Coors, Lockheed Martin, Samsonite, Storage Tech. Buttoned-down and blue-chip, these conservative companies feel pressured by their appearance on the annual list of major polluters to do something to reduce toxic emissions.
"Most companies don't want to be on the front page of the newspaper as the largest polluter in the state," notes Goldin-Dubois.
Coors is a prime example of how voluntary pollution-control programs can produce results. The company was ranked as the number-one polluter in Colorado in 1990, when it reported releasing 583,092 pounds of toxics. By 1994 it had fallen to fourth place on the EPA's annual list, releasing 284,437 pounds of toxic waste into the air and water.
"You have to have people with authority really behind this to make it happen," says Coors spokesman Jon Goldman. Coors was a founding member of the Pollution Prevention Partnership, a local group that brings companies together to discuss ways to reduce emissions. The partnership works with scientists from Colorado State University to create more environmentally friendly technology, and each member is asked to set goals for reducing toxic emissions. Representatives of the EPA, the state health department and other agencies also participate. The partnership even includes some of the state's environmental watchdogs, like CoPIRG and the League of Women Voters.
"It's a tremendous forum for exchanging information and working cooperatively with government agencies to reduce the use of chemicals," says Goldman. Companies like Coors have even found that cutting their use of toxics can save them money. "It can be a tremendous financial benefit to implement a pollution-prevention program," notes Goldman, since slashing the use of toxics reduces the need for expensive safety procedures and removes a layer of government regulation.
The Governor's Pollution Prevention Challenge is similar to the partnership, but it isn't quite as demanding as that program and doesn't charge a membership fee. Still, many of the participants in the state program have also dramatically reduced their emissions. Syntex Chemicals, Inc., in Boulder has reduced emissions from 722,500 pounds in 1989 to 226,950 pounds in 1994. Kodak, which runs a film-production plant in the small town of Windsor, emitted 309,962 pounds of toxics in 1990 but brought that figure down to 162,307 pounds by 1994. The impact of the two programs becomes apparent when looking at the total amount of reported toxic releases in Colorado. In 1988 industries in the state released 13,764,589 pounds of toxics; by 1994 that number had dropped to 3,743,684 pounds.
Meanwhile, Pillow Kingdom's releases haven't changed much over the last few years. In 1992 the company emitted 155,533 pounds of toxic materials from its Park Hill plant. In 1993 that number dropped to 136,357 pounds, then rose the next year to 159,869 pounds of airborne toxics. According to the state health department, the 1995 Toxic Release Inventory will show a drop in Pillow Kingdom's releases to 93,490 pounds, but that's because the company shifted some of its production from the Kearney plant to its Forest Street facility a few blocks away, and those releases are counted separately. When the total releases from the two factories are combined, Pillow Kingdom will have emitted 163,704 pounds of toxic wastes into the air in 1995, a slight increase from the previous year. (Figures for 1996 won't be available until next year.)
That lack of progress upsets some Park Hill residents. "The chemicals are here, two streets over," says Betty Shaw of Park Hill for a Safe Neighborhood, who lives just a few blocks from the Pillow Kingdom factory. "When the wind is up, the odors are everywhere. This area is being saturated with chemicals."
The residential section of northeast Park Hill was developed in the 1950s and early 1960s, spreading along the industrial corridor that parallels Interstate 70. The subdivisions were laid out at a time when there was little concern over toxic emissions. City councilwoman Allegra "Happy" Haynes, who represents northeast Denver, notes that many of the industries in the area "have been there for as long as the residential area." Neighbors have had concerns about individual companies over the years, she adds, and "those concerns have been addressed one by one."
Health officials say there's no direct proof that emissions from Pillow Kingdom or other factories are to blame for health problems such as the headaches and breathing problems reported by some residents. But in recent years, residents have grown increasingly alarmed over the activities of the companies that operate in their neighborhood. The community, for example, erupted in anger two years ago when Laidlaw Environmental Services Inc. proposed opening a hazardous-waste storage station at I-70 and Dahlia Street.
After months of emotional testimony at public hearings, the city's zoning appeal board overturned a previous decision to grant Laidlaw a zoning permit for the facility. Laidlaw sued the city in Denver District Court and lost. That effort created a new sense of solidarity among Park Hill residents, but many still feel beleaguered by the dozens of industrial facilities at their doorstep.
Most of those industries haven't posed a problem for residents, notes Haynes. But she believes a major polluter like Pillow Kingdom has a responsibility to reduce emissions, and she says the company should be willing to join whatever pollution-reduction programs it can. "Being a good neighbor is good business," says the city councilwoman. "Maybe we shouldn't patronize a business that won't step up to the plate."
Pillow Kingdom's emissions are legal, and Shaw says it's difficult for her group to challenge a company that's not breaking the law. But she wishes the firm would show more concern for the people down the street and join the governor's voluntary program to reduce emissions. "I can't understand why a company is part of the community and won't join that state program," says Shaw.
However, spokesman Webb says Pillow Kingdom has made a substantial commitment to reducing toxic emissions. "We have an internal task force looking at the manufacturing process," he says, adding that the company will move to cleaner, water-based paints "as fast as quality materials can be developed."
Webb notes that the EPA never accused Pillow Kingdom of illegal emissions but only charged the company with violating reporting requirements. The EPA also acknowledged that environmentally friendly paints and finishes were still being developed and that Pillow Kingdom wouldn't be able to find such products immediately. Pillow Kingdom expects its future emission levels to drop, Webb adds, but the company's growing business makes it hard to predict how large those decreases will be.
"We certainly expect to see a reduction in emissions," says Webb. "But production has increased recently. Whether the reduction will be the size of a breadbox or a refrigerator, it's difficult for us to tell.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.