Dubious distinction

The economy is down, but toxic pollution in Sacramento is up

The good news is that California industry is putting less toxic stuff into our air and our water. The bad news is that the Sacramento region actually got a little bit more toxic in the last year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported earlier this month that toxic releases from California factories and other facilities were down by 21 percent in 2008 compared to the year 2007.

The data are collected together annually in the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory Program, which allows citizens to track pollution by businesses in their community.

The main pollutants reported in California in 2008 were ammonia, lead, asbestos, zinc compounds and nitrate compounds. All in all, 44 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released in to air, into the sewers, into landfills or shipped to special toxic-waste facilities.

The decreases could be due to any number of factors. “It could be because of facilities closing,” said Mariela Lopez, a TRI program officer for the EPA who is based in San Francisco. She explained that fewer facilities are reporting to the agency this year and that the flagging economy could be a factor in the most recent pollution numbers.

Nationally, toxic releases decreased by 6 percent compared to the previous year, from 4.1 billion pounds to 3.86 billion pounds. According to the EPA, toxic releases to the air decreased by 14 percent in that time, but toxic releases into the water went up by 3 percent. The EPA said that increase was due to a disastrous coal-ash spill at a Tennessee coal power plant just over a year ago.

Despite the downward trend in California and nationally, in Sacramento County, companies actually released more toxic stuff into the environment last year. In 2007, county facilities released 460,420 pounds of toxic chemicals. In 2008, it was 505,649 pounds.

In Yolo County, toxic releases dropped from 118,216 pounds to 85,411 pounds over the year. Placer saw a similar drop, from 81,9082 to 71,277 pounds. But Amador County saw its toxic releases rise from 130,387 to 177,939 pounds.

The rise in Amador County was due largely to releases of methanol (more than 100,000 pounds) and formaldehyde (about 15,000 pounds) from the SierraPine company, which is consistently one of the region’s larger polluters. The company uses the chemicals to make particle board. The company also released 51,000 pounds of the same chemicals from its Rocklin plant.

Other top polluters in the region according to the 2008 TRI data include:

D&T Fiberglass in Sacramento, which released nearly 25,000 pounds of styrene into the air in 2008. According to the EPA, styrene is a suspected carcinogen and may be toxic to the kidneys and respiratory system.

Silgan Can Company, part of the old Campbell’s Soup factory on Franklin Boulevard. Silgan reported releasing 12,000 pounds of glycol ethers and almost 11,000 pounds of n-butyl alcohol down the drain.

Grafil Inc., a carbon fiber manufacturer on Fruitridge Road, released 42,207 pounds of ammonia into the air, along with 1,864 pounds of hydrogen cyanide. That amount of hydrogen cyanide is believed to be far below what would be considered dangerous for anyone living nearby. But we should note that the plant only released 500 pounds of the stuff in 2007.

Procter & Gamble sent 160,000 pounds of chromium compounds and 196,000 pounds of copper compounds to toxic-waste facilities. Most of P&G’s chemical leftovers may be shipped somewhere else, but they still count as toxic pollution. And the amount of toxic releases are up slightly from the previous year.

• The Blue Diamond plant downtown released about 7,700 pounds of propylene oxide into the air last year. The chemical is used to pasteurize almonds, but it is a suspected human carcinogen. The good news is that the releases are down from more than 10,000 pounds in 2007.

Lopez cautions that the TRI data do not tell you much about the human or environmental health risks associated with a particular facility. And for the most part, businesses pollute well within the legal levels allowed.

“It’s not a total picture of risk,” Lopez explained. “The main importance of the TRI is that it’s a good starting point to begin asking questions at a local level.”