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About 20 Utah companies have pledged they will dramatically reduce their emissions of highly toxic chemicals, environmental officials announced Wednesday.

Kenneth L. Alkema, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, and Burnell Cordner, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the reductions are of chemicals listed among 17 of the most toxic used by industries.They said the companies promised to cut back pollution by chemicals on the list by 33 percent by the end of this year and 50 percent by the end of 1995.

Chemicals targeted include lead and lead compounds, benzene, cadmium and cadmium compounds, chloroform, chromium and its compounds, mercury and its compounds, methylene chloride and toluene.

Reductions will be figured based on 1988 emissions, which amounted to nearly 9.09 million pounds of the 17 toxics. By the end of this year, the amount should be down by more than 3 million pounds and by the end of 1995 by more than 4.5 million pounds.

Nationally, the voluntary reductions are part of the "33/50" program announced by EPA Administrator Bill Reilly in January 1991. In the base year 1988, 1.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released nationally, counting only chemicals on the "33/50" list.

Asked if the toxic emissions in Utah are posing any danger to the public, Alkema said, "In my opinion, yes, they are, especially from those that would be emitting in a populated area . . . I think there is a risk to the public."

He added that Kennecott, Hercules, Thiokol and Geneva are all participating in the program, and some of them are in more heavily populated areas.

The state has not performed a risk analysis to show what the risks are, but Alkema believes the emissions are dangerous.

"In Utah, the one that we're working as much as any on is methylene chloride," Alkema said. He said this chemical is used in the production of graphite.

A staff member said 90 percent of the emissions of this chemical in Utah are from Hercules Corp., which uses graphite fibers to build rocket engines.In addition to the major polluters, Cordner said, "there are a lot of small companies releasing a small amount."

Utah's efforts go beyond those of the EPA, he said, in that the state has launched a drive to cut back on potentially polluting material before it's used. For example, Hercules has searched for a substitute to the methylene chloride.

Part of the state's other efforts are the creation of a task force, the involvement of small business and setting up a clearinghouse where information can be exchanged, Alkema said.

Water, land and air pollution are involved in the releases, but by far the greatest tonnage is in air pollution.

The list of 17 chemicals doesn't include dangerous chlorine compounds. Magcorp, operating near the Great Salt Lake, releases 119 million pounds of chlorine into the atmosphere - more than any other company in the country. Alkema said Magcorp also is reducing emissions by 30 percent to 40 percent, and some parts of the operation will cut back by 50 percent.

Under the Clean Air Act, toxic emission reductions are mandatory. But Alkema said they would be achieved in a 10-year period, not nearly as rapidly as the voluntary program. Most or all of the major polluters in Utah are signed up in the voluntary effort, he said.

"Obviously, the law on toxics was not as tough as it should have been," he said. Both state and federal laws "have been lax," requiring the push for voluntary reductions.