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Mattels handling of water problems raises concerns at state level

State environmental and health officials publicly applaud Mattel Inc. for stepping up to respond to the problem of the polluted wells it inherited when it bought the Beaverton toy plant in 1997.

Internal memos, however, show a steady frustration with Mattel's attempts to spin facts to the company's advantage. State toxicologists were particularly alarmed by Mattel's assertions in fact sheets mailed to former employees that prolonged exposure to trichloroethylene through drinking water would not cause significant risks for past workers, including women who were pregnant while working.

'There are some real problems with concluding É that these people were safely exposed, as the Mattel fact sheet did,' wrote Oregon Health Division toxicologist Duncan Gilroy in May 1998.

Last November a single sentence in a report prepared by the state Department of Environmental Quality for the toy plant's former workers caused Dan Nottage, general manager of Mattel in Portland, to stop the presses and demand a rewording.

The original sentence read, 'Future use of the deep aquifer as a source of drinking water for plant employees poses a significant risk of cancer and noncancer health effects.'

Nottage insisted that the sentence be rewritten to remove any mention of cancer before he would mail the report out to former employees of the plant, which produced View-Master products. The DEQ agreed to the rewrite.

To Portland environmental attorney David Paul, Mattel's spin machine turns sour when two apparently contradictory documents are placed side by side.

In the first, a May 1998 letter to former plant owner GAF threatening a lawsuit, Mattel's attorney asserted that 'the substances released by GAF are hazardous É and pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.'

In the second document, a letter to former employees, Nottage wrote that 'exposure at the levels found at the plant is not expected to affect the health of our current or former employees.'

Asked about the apparent contradiction between the two documents, Nottage explained that the first was written by lawyers girding for a lawsuit, while the letter to employees was meant to be as informative and calm as possible.

'Our opponents have used that wording to give the appearance that we're speaking out of both sides of our mouth,' Nottage said. 'I don't believe that we are.'

Ñ Ben Jacklet