Huntsman paradox: Cancer claims vs. cancer research

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Jeff Warren's advanced cancer was bad enough; the treatments nearly killed him.

"But it beats the heck out of the alternative," says the energetic 50-year-old. "It beats a dirt nap."

Now Warren celebrates his recovery and his healers with an annual bike trek from his home in Centerville across 667 miles of desolate desert highway to Reno, Nev. He triumphantly chronicles the trip on his Web site, http://ikickedcancers, and turns over donations from family and friends to cancer research and treatment.

Lillie Tilley could use a big dose of Warren's exuberance down in southeastern Texas, where she lives a hardscrabble life, inundated by foul-smelling and potentially dangerous emissions from the chemical plants just over her backyard fence.

At 44, Tilley suffers from asthma, diabetes and heart attacks, and she must use a "breathing machine" three times a day. Her sister has cancer.

"For a lot of us, it's too late," says the former refinery worker. "I'm already half-dead."

Tilley and Warren may be far apart in distance and circumstance, but they credit their opposite fates - at least in part - to the same man: Jon Huntsman.

It is the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the end of the Circle of Hope in Salt Lake City that Warren thanks for ridding him of the Stage Four mouth cancer he was given a 1-in-4 chance of surviving. It is polluters like Huntsman's Port Arthur, Texas, petrochemical plant that Tilley blames for menacing her community with skin rashes, burning eyes, asthma and, yes, cancer.

It is perhaps inevitable that the self-made Utah billionaire and philanthropist elicits such wildly different opinions. Through business, politics and charitable endeavors, he has touched thousands of people around the world.

In his home state, Huntsman is as close to royalty as you get: rich, a member of the dominant Mormon faith, influential with community leaders and generous. His name adorns cherished programs and buildings, from the annual amateur Huntsman World Senior Games in southern Utah to the cancer research center and hospital at the University of Utah.

In Texas, however, the same name marks chemical plants that release tons of toxic chemicals into the air.

Philanthropist. Chemical plant owner. Jon Huntsman is both. He is a complex man, yet one who sees himself in the simplest terms: He does good. Period.

Huntsman's passion: Huntsman, 67, says his greatest joy these days is visiting patients in the cancer institute's chemotherapy unit.

"You just go from station to station and give the people a hug, and sometimes you never say a word because you know, well, you just feel in your heart that maybe the best medicine they have that day is a hug."

He delivers more than embraces, however. Through his charitable foundation, Huntsman has committed $225 million to the cancer research institute and the new cancer hospital that bears his name. So far he has raised and contributed $180 million.

The donations have come during a period when his business, the world's largest privately owned chemical company, verged on collapse. Huntsman Group of Companies carries on its books about $8.3 billion of short- and long-term debt and, in 2001, when it defaulted on its junk bond interest payments, family members relinquished 49 percent ownership to outside investors.

"This is where the banks and I have just been in dogfights for the last four years because our business has not generated the income stream to cover the charitable commitments, so I have borrowed personally," says Huntsman, who remains company chairman four years after turning over the chief executive spot to his son Peter.

"The bankers say, 'Jon, you can't borrow to give it away.' And I've said, 'No, no, you miss the point. I've made a commitment, and the commitment means a great deal to me.' "

Those who know Jon Huntsman confirm he wants to sell his share in the family business as soon as the market allows so he can plow his entire fortune into curing cancer. He is determined to be remembered for his charitable works, not his commercial ones.

So, when people like Tilley point to him as a source of harm, he has difficulty even grasping the concept.

Huntsman has battled prostate and mouth cancer and remains vigilant about his susceptibility to colon cancer after losing his mother, father and stepmother to other forms of the disease.

Yet it is not the death-defying fight against cancer that helps him identify with his critics in Texas. Rather, it is his impoverished roots.

"I really don't kind of blame them," he says, "because as a kid growing up, you know, we didn't have anything, and I kind of resented wealthy people."

Self-made: Huntsman reached extraordinary heights from humble beginnings.

Born in Blackfoot, Idaho, he grew up in the one-store town of Thomas, the second son of a schoolteacher.

Not only did he win a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania's top-notch Wharton School of Business, but he also married the daughter of LDS Church Apostle David B. Haight.

Huntsman became the youngest-ever president of a Dow Chemical subsidiary, then served on the White House staff of President Nixon, bailing out of the administration before the Watergate break-in that would bring it down.

He recalls an audience with the pope, and has frequently loaned his corporate jet to LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley. Intrigued with politics, he ran for governor in 1988 but pulled out of the race after only a few weeks.

Business has been his forte, although that too had many starts and stops. He tells how Karen, his wife of 45 years, helped him test the polystyrene foam "clamshells" that became a standard for fast-food packaging by running them through their dishwasher at home. He tells about his record company that specialized in Christmas tunes.

Over time, Huntsman built the chemical powerhouse with 13,000 employees worldwide that had 2003 revenues of $9.5 billion and landed him on the Forbes list of the world's richest people. The magazine has estimated his personal worth at $2.5 billion.

"The most my dad ever made was $200 a month," he says. "And I worked for everything in life."

Port Arthur, Texas: A key to cementing Huntsman's standing in the global chemical industry was the 1994 purchase of Texaco's operations, including the Texas plants. But the move also brought environmental problems.

Today, the Port Arthur plant remains what Huntsman calls "the worst [plant] we have anywhere in the world."

It is one of about two dozen Huntsman facilities sprawling 3,500 acres in Jefferson County, where the company, by its own count, has invested about $653 million in improvements, including $160 million for health, safety and pollution-control projects. Even though the company has followed an industry trend of reducing emissions, cutting about 5,500 tons a year of toxic emissions to less than 1,000 in Jefferson County, its Port Arthur plant has come under fire.

l It has been singled out for the second-worst fine ever handed out by Texas environmental authorities. The agency demanded $9.45 million in civil penalties for unpermitted and unreported releases of harmful air pollutants.

* Two former plant managers who stayed on after the purchase from Texaco pleaded guilty to the first criminal charges ever brought in Texas under the Clean Air Act. Jeffery Jackson and Michael Peters allowed benzene and other dangerous chemicals to leak from a broken cooling tower seal.

l Neighbors claiming the plants are causing deaths and injuries in their predominantly poor, minority communities have filed a class-action lawsuit against Huntsman and five other chemical companies with plants in the area.

Jon Huntsman insists the company cleaned up the mess Texaco left, and he describes the class-action suit as attempted "extortion" in which plaintiffs' attorneys are leveraging the political future of his eldest son, Jon Huntsman Jr., the Republican nominee for Utah governor.

What about the plant emissions neighbors complain of?

"It's steam, and it just evaporates like a cloud," says Huntsman. "Yet, people look at it, and they say, 'Look at the pollution.' Well, there's no pollution in it."

A dying town: All of the Jefferson County plants release 452 pounds of toxic pollution each year for each Port Arthur resident, a total of more than 26 million pounds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Huntsman plants account for less than one-twentieth of the total. The releases are one of the reasons Texas neighbors blame Huntsman and the other chemical companies for illnesses and deaths.

Tilley's back yard shares a fence with one of the plants. Like so many town residents, she grew up seeing the plants churn out plumes of smoke during the day, flickering flares at night burning waste chemicals. A few times she left the refinery where she once worked throwing up but returned the next day.

Tilley is one of 900 residents who have joined the class-action lawsuit against the chemical companies. However the court fight turns out, she is determined her three children, all college students, will graduate and leave Port Arthur.

"Once they get their degrees, they can get the heck out of Texas, get out of this," Tilley says. "I'm stuck here, but my kids have a chance."

Some call Port Arthur a "sacrifice zone."

Vacant lots and boarded buildings are nearly as common as the narrow "shotgun" homes covered in peeling paint. Concrete building foundations litter lots like toppled gravestones against a backdrop of chemical plants and oil refineries.

Founded as a railroad port and terminus, Port Arthur's destiny changed with the discovery of oil at Spindletop in nearby Beaumont at the turn of the 20th century. By 1902, the town was home to Texaco and Gulf Oil refineries, followed by other companies attracted by access to sea and rail lines.

For years the plants were the town's vital organs, recalls Hilton Kelley, a Port Arthur native who returned home after 20 years as a Hollywood stunt man and extra. Fathers, uncles, cousins worked at Texaco or Shell. When, as a youngster, he griped about the rotten egg smell, his mother would chide, "That's money you smell, boy. Be quiet."

Now, the town of 58,000 people is notable only as the hometown of '60s music icon Janis Joplin and for its location in the so-called cancer belt.

More than two-thirds of Port Arthurians are black, Latino or Southeast Asian, and nearly 1-in-4 families survives on income below the federal poverty level.

"We're living on the fence line of billion-dollar companies, but we're living in poverty," says Kelley. "Port Arthur is almost an erased blackboard."

In nearby Port Neches, former Premcor plant worker Lanya Robin watches her son and his friends play baseball in a field next to one of the plants. "You live here, you worry about it," says Robin, whose doctor has told her that emissions from the plants aggravate her asthma. "You live here, you hate it."

No "polluter": Jon Huntsman sees only the good the chemical industry provides, in Jefferson County and worldwide.

The products made by the plants - everything from diet soft drink sweetener to soaps, fuel additives, car parts and medical products - have made possible modern civilization itself, he notes.

"Without us, people couldn't survive and live, and hospitals couldn't operate and high-tech couldn't operate. The country would come to a standstill," Huntsman says.

He says occasional media reports about pollution problems "break my heart but I don't know what to do about it."

"No one wants to be called a polluter. I mean, my gosh, it's just not something that one can easily handle," Huntsman says calmly, but emphatically, when asked about emissions from his Texas plants.

"If we know that we cause cancer or if we know we have any types of problems work-related, I would shut down that [Port Arthur] plant in five minutes," Huntsman says. "I'd bring [ill residents] here to Salt Lake, I'd do anything in the world for them. I'd take good care of them."

The company has sponsored prostate and breast cancer screenings in Texas communities around its plants.

A place for healing: On the east side of Salt Lake City, nestled into the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, a gleaming new sandstone and glass structure housing the Huntsman Cancer Institute Hospital has just opened for business.

No detail has been spared toward the goal of making the patients and their families feel at home in the $100 million state-of-the-science facility.

It's a place where physicians, nurses and researchers work in teams designed to keep the focus on the patient, to make them collaborators against the disease. Its focus is understanding the genetic causes of cancer rather than environmental ones, such as pollution.

Though in remission some 18 months after his diagnosis of multiple myeloma, or cancer of the bone marrow, Dan Bammes found himself recently at what he calls "the Huntsman Hilton" to remove a dangerous blood clot, an after-effect of last year's treatments at the neighboring cancer institute and University of Utah Hospital.

"Mr. Huntsman knows how to build himself a hospital," says the 48-year-old radio news anchor after a salmon omelet breakfast. "I don't think I could have gotten better treatment anywhere else."

Jim Wilcox, 62, knows he owes his life to the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"It's kind of chilling when I think of the alternative," says Wilcox, who has battled three rounds of colon cancer after originally being misdiagnosed in his home state of Ohio.

"It was really a warm experience - that feeling that I'm going to be taken care of by highly competent people," says the retired college instructor who now runs a gift-basket business, the profits of which go to the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"I'm glad that I went there. I don't ever want to be very far away from it."

Contradictions: Some people see a contradiction in fighting cancer with money from such a dirty industry. Others do not.

Kelley, the Port Arthur native, calls it "appalling and wrong" for Huntsman to send the wealth generated in his community to fund his cancer efforts so far away when so many people around the plants are sick.

"Are we any less valuable than the people in Salt Lake City?" he asks.

Joel Bradberry, an Army reservist who has survived two tours in Afghanistan, has struggled more than two years to understand why a rare brain cancer claimed the life of his son, James, a bright and likeable 10-year-old. Working on his second whisky and Coke at the local Applebee's, complaining about the plants burning off toxic pollutants at night to avoid detection by authorities, he singles out Huntsman.

"I guess they've got it bagged," he says bitterly. "They're causing cancer down here and doing cancer research up there. Cancer research is a lucrative business.

"I hope he enjoys his money. I sure could use some to pay the medical bills."

In dramatic contrast, cancer survivors Warren and Wilcox, the former Huntsman patients, appreciate the benefits the chemical companies have provided.

Wilcox shrugs: "I figured it had to come from someplace."

Warren, who underwent 38 radiation sessions, two surgeries and "three eternities" of chemotherapy at Huntsman, did not find the industry connection "overly concerning."

"Let's be candid here," he says. "I'm alive today, in part, because of chemicals."

Steve Prescott, a doctor and researcher who heads the Huntsman Cancer Institute, says he empathizes with people like Bradberry who blame illnesses in Jefferson County on the nearby plants.

"It's human nature to try to fix [the blame for cancer] on some event," he says. "The real explanation of a lot of this is chance. . . . About one-third of us will have cancer or die of it."

Without Jon Huntsman, the region would have no specialized research and treatment center, he notes.

"I don't see it as tainted money."

Means to an end: Jon Huntsman makes it clear that the company has become secondary to him as he strives to "achieve the end result" at which his life now is unswervingly aimed.

"I don't care about the industrial thing and the money thing," he says of his legacy. " I do understand that we've got to cure cancer.

"I feel that no matter what you do - as long as it's not immoral or dishonest - it's OK. I mean, darn it, it's worth every bit of time because you're dealing with a disease, you're an activist. People think I'm a little bit of maybe a radical activist now," says Huntsman. "After a while you lose yourself in the cause."

Huntsman's example has moved cancer-survivor Bammes, among many others.

"The fact that Jon Huntsman has donated so much money to this, I find personally inspiring," he says. "I have something to give, too, and that's why I'm a body donor. He gave what he can give and I'm giving what I can give."

Yet, Bammes allows, "It does seem strange that the way he made his money is in the chemical business. Then, again, my own life is full of contradictions.

"The simple fact that they're in the chemical business doesn't make them responsible for giving people cancer. But whatever his responsibility is there, he perhaps needs to own up to that, as well."