The agreement with Willamette Industries, announced jointly by Attorney General Janet Reno and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, is part of a continuing series of Clean Air Act enforcement initiatives by the Clinton administration.
"Clean air is one of our most precious possessions, and we cannot take it for granted," Reno told her weekly news conference. "Dirty air is just plain unhealthy, it's uncomfortable, especially for our elderly, our children and others who are most vulnerable among us."
Reno said the "landmark settlement" with Willamette "will help reduce emissions and protect our air quality."
The settlement requires Willamette to pay $11.2 million - the largest penalty ever assessed for factory emissions of air pollution. And it also requires the company to install $74 million worth of pollution control equipment at its factories across the United States.
Willamette Industries manages 1.7 million acres of timberland in the northwestern and southern states and has over 14,000 employees, with plants in 24 states, Mexico and Europe.
Cathy Dunn, spokeswoman for Willamette Industries, said: "The fine is very comparable to what others who have gone before us in this initiative have paid," noting that Louisiana Pacific paid $11 million in a similar situation in 1993.
"EPA wanted to create a level playing field," she said, "and we believe this does that and also allows us to install equipment that will improve the emissions from our facilities."
She said that while the new equipment will reduce the company's emissions of volatile organic compounds, a component of smog, Willamette plants account for only a relatively small amount of air pollution.
"Our (Oregon) plywood plants in Springfield in Lane County and Foster in Linn County account for only 1 percent of the volatile organic compounds in these counties," said Dunn. "So while we will be doing our part, others will have to do theirs too to reduce air pollution."
The agreement was contained in a consent decree that was being filed Thursday in Portland, Oregon. It covers 13 factories in four states: Oregon, South Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Reno said the Clean Air Act "required Willamette to install pollution control equipment each time it expanded its factories, which produce plywood and other building products. But we believe that Willamette did not follow the law. And as a result, thousands of tons of pollution were illegally released into the air."
She said the settlement was the third of its kind "and the largest in our ongoing effort to make sure that the entire wood products industry complies with the Clean Air Act."
Browner told reporters EPA officials estimate "cleanin up the emissions from these plants will keep an average of 27,000 tons of pollution out of the air. That is the equivalent of taking 287,000 cars off the road; 287,000 cars is approximately the number of cars in the city the size of Portland."
A leading environmental group welcomed Thursday's announcement.
"We applaud the administration for vigorously enforcing the Clean Air Act and for holding a polluter accountable," said Ed Hopkins, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. "We think it's important for the EPA to send a signal to polluters that they need to comply with the act - and this is a big signal."
By Pete Yost © 2000, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed