Dirty work

In commemoration of Earth Day, we took a look at the environmental impacts from some local industries

UNR environmental health and safety director Steven Oberg says he’s not worried about “acute consequences” of occasional chemical releases in Reno. He’s more uncertain about the long term.

UNR environmental health and safety director Steven Oberg says he’s not worried about “acute consequences” of occasional chemical releases in Reno. He’s more uncertain about the long term.

Photo By David Robert

When it comes to polluters in Nevada, the mining industry deservedly takes the limelight. It’s always at the top of the list for both mercury and overall toxic chemical releases. Four of Nevada’s mines made the Top 10 list of industrial polluters nationwide in 2004, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxics Release Inventory report.

Not to downplay the mines, but they’re in Golconda, Elko, Pershing and Carlin. Not here.

So who are the top polluters in the Reno-Carson City area? The TRI report breaks it down. The EPA requires companies to self-report on the TRI how many pounds of chemicals they release into our air, water and land; then it puts that information on its Web site, www.epa.gov/triexplorer. A more digestible form of the same information is found on Environmental Defense’s “Scorecard” (www.scorecard.org).

Compared to mining companies like Newmont, whose Golconda operation alone belched out 49 million pounds of chemicals in 2004 (the latest figures available), the guys on our list look like small potatoes. But if mining companies are our yardstick, then Chevron would come out looking like outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia.

At its most basic, the TRI report is what it says—an inventory of toxic releases using raw numbers. But it provides little perspective as to what those numbers mean.

Seated around a table at the Applied Research Facility at the University of Nevada, Reno, three environmental science and health experts (Ph.D.s, all) couldn’t make definitive sense of the TRI data for Reno and Carson City or say how harmful those pounds of chemicals are to the local environment and the people living here. That all depends on factors not mentioned in the TRI: whether the chemical is persistent in the air or if it breaks down quickly, weather conditions (air pollution is typically more harmful during an inversion than on clear days), and whether the chemical is in an elemental or compound form. (For example, elemental chromium is more toxic than chromium compounds, but it’s reported the same way.)

Steven Oberg, director of Environmental Health and Safety at UNR, says he’s not worried about “acute consequences” of the numbers in the local TRI report. “The real question is over the long term, in lower concentrations, whether that’s acceptable or not. As we watch the ice caps melt, the forests disappear, people are asking, are we at the limit of what we’ve enjoyed for so long? Are we at the brink? We keep doing this over and over and over—is there a limit? With all of that, it’s presumed on the international level that the Earth and our bodies can deal with these quantities of materials.”

Before any of us get too self-righteous while looking at this list, keep in mind that we (at least the vehicle-driving “we") are our own biggest polluters. Most air pollution is caused by mobile sources—cars, trucks, off-road vehicles, boats, etc. Furthermore, our vehicles can expose us more directly to chemicals than many of the industries listed below. John Sagebiel, environmental affairs manager at UNR, says the average person is more likely to come into contact with toluene, a chemical solvent often cited on the TRI, while fueling their car, as toluene is a major component in gasoline.

“I often say you could never get gasoline permitted today,” says Sagebiel. “It produces horrible by-products. But if you ask someone if their garage is a dangerous place, they’d say no.”

Glenn Miller, director of UNR’s Environmental Sciences and Health graduate program and a board member of Great Basin Mine Watch, says the TRI report, though vague, is a powerful tool in pressuring companies to be kinder to the environment. “But interpreting the data, that’s the problem,” he says. “Trying to figure out what sort of risks these represent—that can’t be interpreted by pounds. But it lists specific chemicals, so you can get some idea. And people do not like to see their name as a source.”

In short, despite all of TRI’s limitations, no one wants to see their name on this list.

1) R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co.
14100 Lear Blvd., Reno

R.R. Donnelley is a print manufacturing company that produces everything from books to catalogs, office newsletters, brochures and inserts otherwise known as junk mail. The company has been around for more than 140 years, making it one of America’s oldest printers, with facilities in more than 600 locations worldwide.

The Reno facility, with 283,267 pounds of toluene released to the local environment in 2004, is by far the biggest toxic releaser on this list. They overwhelmed the No. 2 spot by a spread of more than 270,000 pounds. Toluene is a solvent the printing company primarily uses in gravure printing, a technique that uses an engraved cylinder to carry the ink to the paper and is often used for big press runs of hundreds of thousands of printings. Toluene keeps the ink flowing readily and drying quickly.

Please click <a href="/binary/72ad452f/cover-3.jpg" target="_blank">here</a> for a larger version.

While still unable to determine its exact risk, Miller paused at the toluene releases. While looking over a list of the total pounds of toxic chemicals released by all reporting businesses in Washoe County, he said, “Two pounds of ethylbenzene, I’m not going to get excited about.” But the toluene, he said, was a “big number.”

R.R. Donnelley’s Web site said the company has improved its solvent-recovery systems to reduce toluene emissions from gravure printing by 77 million pounds since 1990. While the numbers were down to 167,862 pounds in 2003 from the prior year’s release of 288,500 pounds of toluene, they were back up again in 2004. The company didn’t return calls for comment.

2) MFG/Ratech
855 E. Greg St., Suite 103, Sparks

MFG/Ratech was founded in Nevada in 1991. The company designs and makes simulation domes and antennas, as well as radomes, which serve radar and communication functions. They’re the creators of the 180-feet in diameter Silver Legacy dome, which they claim to be the largest composite dome in the world. They also made the dome atop the Century 14 Theaters in Sparks.

The company released 11,388 pounds of styrene in 2004, up from 8,411 pounds in 2003. Styrene, a suspected carcinogen, is commonly used to make plastics, rubber, insulation, fiberglass, pipes and carpet backing.

To be fair, Viking Metallurgical would easily hold this spot if we were considering chemicals transferred offsite; that company had 64,910 pounds of off-site chemical releases. But as we’re looking at releases to the local environment, you’ll have to look for Viking further down the list at number 6.

3) Sun Chemical
7970 Security Circle, Reno

Sun Chemical is an international printing ink and pigment manufacturer headquartered in New Jersey. For nearly 200 years, they’ve made magazines, books and newspapers glossy and colorful. They provide the pigment for cosmetics and food labels, as well as the ink for your printer, among other things.

In Reno, Sun Chemical provides ink to two primary customers—R.R. Donnelley, mentioned above, and Quebecor World. Both companies print catalogs and inserts for magazines and Sunday newspapers, and both use gravure printing, a process that uses the solvent toluene.

In 2004, Sun Chemical released 3,054 pounds of chemicals into the air, 99 percent of which was toluene. That number has decreased significantly since 1998, when 23,800 pounds of mostly toluene was released, but it was up from the 2,047 pounds released in 2003.

Explaining one reason for overall decreased emissions, Sun Chemical spokesperson John Kalkowski said, “We’ve been working to formulate inks that do a good job of printing but are also more environmentally friendly.” The facility also has a closed manufacturing system to limit releases of volatile organic compounds like toluene.

4) Taiyo America Inc.
2675 Antler Dr., Carson City

Taiyo America is a 53-year-old company that specializes in solder masks and specialty inks. Soldering is done by melting a combination of metals to join metallic surfaces. Taiyo’s line of colors and finishes are also used for screen printing, spraying and curtain coating.

Taiyo has had a manufacturing plant in Carson City for 12 years. It released 2,210 pounds of “certain glycol ethers” into the air in 2004. This was down from releases of 3,410 pounds in 2003. Glycol ethers are a large group of chemicals, widely used as industrial solvents. They’re found in inks and other coatings, as well as cleaners, degreasers, de-icers, perfumes and cosmetics. The company didn’t return calls for comment.

5) PCC Structurals
2727 Lockheed Way, Carson City

PCC Structurals lists General Electric and Boeing among its top clients. It makes large investment castings, which help generate power for things like commercial and military aircraft, tanks and medical equipment.

The castings, which can weigh up to 125 pounds, are made from a range of metal alloys, including steel, nickel and cobalt-based alloys. Stainless steel is an alloy of iron, chromium and nickel. The chromium helps make products less likely to corrode.

This gives us a clue as to the main culprits in PCC’s 742 pounds of toxic chemicals released—330 each of chromium and nickel and 82 pounds of cobalt. Those numbers don’t include an additional 3,693 pounds of chemicals the company released off-site.

The facility was formerly Wyman Gordon Investment Castings, but PCC (known internationally as Precision Castparts Corporation) acquired Wyman in 1999, and the Carson City facility officially changed its name last year.

As Wyman, the facility’s air releases were down dramatically from 1990, when they were at 62,772 pounds. Its land releases were zero in 2002 but at 1,000 pounds the year before. The company didn’t return calls to explain whether this decline was because of efforts to reduce emissions or a reflection of the investment-castings market.

Victor Forsberg, Viking Metallurgical purchasing manager, says release amounts fluctuate because the aerospace industry goes through cycles. “We might see three good years out of seven.”

By David Robert

6) Viking Metallurgical
1 Eric Circle, Verdi

Much like PCC Structurals, the nature of Viking Metallurgical’s business puts chromium and nickel at the top of its 562 pounds of toxic releases in 2004. Those numbers shrivel in comparison to the 64,910 pounds of chemicals Viking transfers off-site.

Since 1988, when Viking released 570 pounds, its numbers have been sporadic, to say the least: Viking was up to nearly 14,000 pounds in 1991, down to 45 pounds in 1996, then up again to nearly 16,000 in 2001 and down to 129 pounds in 2003.

Victor Forsberg, purchasing manager of the plant, says that variability is because the aerospace industry goes through cycles about every seven years. “We might see three good years out of seven,” he says.

Viking Metallurgical’s main gig is making titanium rings for gas-turbine engines. When forging the metal into a ring, the metal cracks, and the crack has to be ground out. This grinding process, says Forsberg, produces the biggest toxic releases. “Keep in mind we aren’t like a plating shop that’s releasing chrome oxide into the water supply or dumping it down the sewer,” he says. “We’re generating dust from grinding an alloy where chrome is tied up in an alloying element, and the materials are analyzed and permitted as part of our waste disposal process.” Decades ago, all of these materials went straight into the waste stream, says Forsberg. But now it goes back to melting shops for recycling.

7) Tyco Valves & Controls
9025 Moya Blvd., Reno

Tyco Valves & Controls, which relocated here from Germany in 2001, makes every type of valve imaginable—ball, butterfly, gate, globe, pressure valves, you name it. In doing so, they released 500 pounds of toxic chemicals to the air—250 pounds each of chromium and nickel. This was up from 34 pounds in 2000 and 188 pounds in 2003.

Plant manager John Ward said the company currently uses a solvent-based paint but is transitioning this year to a water-based paint that dries faster but has no emissions.

“We’ve instituted a recycling plan; we’re getting away from solvent-based paints. I think we’re going in the right direction,” says Ward.

8) United Engine & Machine Co.
4909 Goni Road, Carson City

United Engine & Machine makes pistons for computer equipment and industrial and commercial machinery. They also make carburetors, valves and plastic products, such as gaskets, packing and sealing devices. The company began in California in 1922, and its headquarters relocated to Carson City in 1978.

United Engine released 260 pounds of copper in 2004, down from 1,000 pounds in 1988, with no offsite releases. All of the emissions in 1988 went into the air, but by 2002, only 10 pounds did. However, land releases of 250 pounds were new additions in both 2001 and 2002.

The company didn’t return calls for comment.

9) Elite Spice
1225 E. Greg St. #102, Sparks

Elite Spice, it may surprise you to discover, makes spices. They cover all the biggies, from anise to turmeric as well as condiments.

Ethylene oxide made up the 250 pounds of chemicals Elite released to the air in 2004. They had no offsite releases.

Ethylene oxide is used as a bacteria-killer and disinfectant. Bob Cloney of Elite Spices says, “Our raw materials are mostly agricultural products imported from third-world countries that must be cleaned, sterilized and processed.”

10) Master-Halco
14331 Lear Blvd.

Master-Halco makes and distributes fence systems, most of which are plastic-coated wire and chain-link fences. It released 56 pounds of chemicals in 2004, down from 418 pounds in 2002. Zinc compounds, which are generally used to inhibit corrosion, made up the biggest releases. Master-Halco’s releases stayed steady at around 1,000 pounds through the 1990s, but then dropped by more than half by 2003. Notably, the company transferred 1,850 pounds of chemicals offsite in 2004.

No one from the company returned calls to comment.