The Dirty Dozen

There are businesses in the Sacramento area that are befouling our air and water. So, we’re naming names.

Instead of filling SN&R’s Earth Day 2004 issue with those environmental affirmations (“Earth Day, Every Day!”), instructive slogans (“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!”) and clever advice (“Planet Carefully, Use it Wisely”), we’ve decided to go in a different direction.

We decided to name names.

As a public service to our readers, we determined we’d revisit a project we’d prepared more than a decade ago and develop a new ranking—a sort of “worst of” list—of local polluters: the new Dirty Dozen.

Our first goal was simply to point to the local companies that befoul our air, water and land. Our next objective was more complex: We wanted to try to get at the truth about whether the pollution from these companies might be endangering the health of people in our community. It’s a difficult undertaking because medical science often remains unclear about when and at what doses various pollutants become a human health threat. In fact, that’s why it is perfectly legal (as in most of the cases below) for companies to pollute, as long as they don’t break existing environmental laws in the process. Though much is sent to treatment plants or hazardous-waste-disposal sites, some of the pollutants mentioned below are released directly into the air or water, and you need to know about them.

To compile our toxic-company catalog, we turned to a few key sources.

First, we reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which makes public all kinds of information about various companies’ uses of dangerous chemicals. The TRI—which lists chemicals that scientists have found to cause cancer, birth defects, genetic damage and even death—first was established in 1986, when Congress developed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

Another thing we did was check in with the regulators who catch people breaking environmental laws. A surprising number of local businesses violate federal and state environmental rules as set forth in the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, and we thought the ones who broke these laws frequently or most egregiously belonged on the Dirty Dozen list. Also, we included a few companies who were found negligent by local air- or water-quality-control boards.

Finally, we used the “industrial” criteria as a measuring stick. By now, most of us know that emissions from automobiles are most to blame for air pollution in the Sacramento Valley. (Indeed, it’s estimated that about 45 percent of our air pollution in 2005 will come from cars and that an additional 27 percent will come from other mobile sources, like off-road vehicles, boats, aircraft, trains, large trucks and farm equipment.) And just last week, the Sacramento region again failed to meet the federal EPA’s ozone standards, mostly because of pollution from mobile sources. But because we were focusing here on the industrial sources of pollution, we stuck with reporting about the 28 percent of air pollution that comes from companies that literally release pollutants into the air and water.

We knew from the start that our toxic-12 list would be subjective, even contestable. For example, it certainly can be argued that low-density development up the Highway 50 corridor eventually will damage the region’s environment more gravely than many of the Dirty Dozen, because this type of growth encourages sprawl, which brings more traffic and thus air pollution. However, our goal here was to name specific companies or business categories that literally dump, release or otherwise leak hazardous waste into our environment. So, consider these criteria as you review the following list.

Finally, we should mention that TRI data are from 2001, the latest year for which data are available. And though we tracked compliance with environmental rules in the last two years, our list may not reflect violations that are being investigated currently or that haven’t been made public yet.

In honor of Earth Day 2004, we hereby present our version of the Sacramento region’s new Dirty Dozen.

No. 1
Aerojet General Corp.

… for establishing a lasting toxic legacy in our community.

Sacramento’s Aerojet General Corp. location remains one of the nation’s most virulent toxic Superfund sites. Located 15 miles east of Sacramento, the multinational company has, since 1953, been manufacturing liquid and solid rocket-propulsion systems for use by the U.S. Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It’s no news to locals that, along the way, Aerojet disposed of vast quantities of exceedingly hazardous waste on its 5,900-acre site—including plenty of the probable carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE)—in landfills, evaporation ponds, wells and burn pits.

Aerojet’s problem isn’t really about what’s on top of the soil; it’s about what has migrated deep down below. Plumes of contaminated groundwater underneath Aerojet’s massive property stretch for miles; extraction and filtering of soil has been ongoing, and dozens of neighborhood wells have been shut down to the west and south because of fear of tainted water. In 1997, the chemical perchlorate was detected in wells off-site, having traveled under the American River. A component of rocket fuel, perchlorate is suspected, among other things, of interfering with brain development in fetuses and infants. But medical science has not yet determined what long-term exposure to perchlorate might do, and the federal EPA continues to consider the chemical safe under certain doses.

Aerojet has spent about $200 million in toxic-cleanup efforts thus far, and officials report that the company is committed to seeing the remediation through despite a potential cost of $1.2 billion. (The company expects to be reimbursed for much of this because it was working on behalf of the government when the toxic stew unknowingly was created.) But even $1.2 billion may not be enough. In March, a brand-new plume of migrating contaminants was found in the groundwater passing under the property, beneath the American River and into Carmichael. Nearby residents were alarmed when the chemical NDMA (N-nitrosodimethylamine)—used in the making of rocket fuels and listed by the EPA as a “probable” cancer-causing agent—was detected at rates 30 times higher than acceptable. The EPA reports that Aerojet is working out a plan to drill additional wells to deal with the NDMA. (See SN&R’s story “Fear of Exposure,” by Chrisanne Beckner.)

In addition to these standing problems, state inspectors have found violations and hazardous conditions at Aerojet’s properties—cracks and gaps in hazardous-waste containers and leaking storage drums—in each of the past three years. Only a few weeks ago, the company paid the state a settlement of $1.2 million for violations, though an Aerojet spokesman said these consisted mostly of failures to keep administrative records properly.

In a new twist to the story, Aerojet’s parent company, GenCorp Inc., has discovered how lucrative real-estate development may be for the company’s future. A large swath of Aerojet’s land sits near the Highway 50 corridor south of Folsom, where real-estate values are skyrocketing. Recently, company officials announced plans to develop a “smart-growth” residential development, called Easton, on 1,400 acres on the tip of Aerojet’s property. But first the company will have to deal with the fact that portions of that property sit on contaminated land.

Aerojet Road and Highway 50, Rancho Cordova.

No. 2
Blue Diamond Growers

… for releasing 8,000 pounds of known carcinogens into our air.

At first glance, a company like Blue Diamond hardly seems to belong on the same list as a heavyweight like Aerojet. Blue Diamond has reduced its toxic inventory steadily during the past several years and has a near-spotless record of complying with environmental regulations. It’s also a sort of Sacramento icon, with its headquarters right here in town.

Unfortunately, Blue Diamond is one of the region’s biggest industrial polluters when it comes to releasing known carcinogens into the air. The chemical in question, propylene oxide, is used to sterilize the almonds after they are harvested. Once the bugs are killed, the stuff is sent up the stack and over the Alkali Flat neighborhood.

But does that mean the Blue Diamond plant is giving its neighbors cancer? Probably not. The Sacramento Air Quality Management District (AQMD) assigns all industrial facilities a number to reflect a site’s potential cancer risk to the public. Blue Diamond gets a 9. What that means is that a person getting the maximum exposure (based on the average annual concentrations around the entire site) of harmful chemicals from this plant over the course of an entire lifetime (70 years) would see his or her chances of getting cancer increased only by one in 9 million. Compare this with the “background” cancer risk from breathing Sacramento’s air, which is 500 in 1 million. As California Air Resources Board spokeswoman Gennet Paauwe put it, “Anybody who lives more than football field away from one of these stationary sources is probably OK.”

Still, the cancer number provides a reasonably simple way to compare facilities, and Blue Diamond’s 9 is one of the highest in the region.

There also are some facilities you might not expect to pose relatively high risks to the public that do. AQMD has given Folsom Prison a cancer number of 6 in a million (it makes license plates, after all), and the University of California, Davis, Medical Center has earned a 4 largely because of its ethylene-oxide sterilizer.

1802 C Street, Sacramento.

No. 3
SierraPine Ltd.

… for discharging 300,000 pounds of toxic chemicals and 70,000 pounds of known carcinogens into our air.

The great success story of California’s air quality is that toxic air pollution from industrial facilities has taken a nosedive in the past 10 years. The EPA’s TRI shows that facilities across the Sacramento region have cut their emissions of toxic chemicals drastically.

One notable exception is particle-board maker SierraPine Ltd., whose expanding operations have led to steadily increasing pollution levels. SierraPine topped the region in 2001 for the sheer amount of chemicals it put into the air, with more than 300,000 pounds of toxins released between its two plants in Rocklin and Martell (in Amador County just north of Jackson). Much of it was methanol, a potential neurological, respiratory and developmental toxin. SierraPine’s two facilities also account for the greatest industrial releases of recognized carcinogens in the region, with nearly 70,000 pounds of formaldehyde being released into the air in 2001.

4300 Dominquez Road, Rocklin; 11300 Ridge Road, Martell.

No. 4
Leer West/ Truck Accessories Group

… for releasing 105,000 pounds of styrene and other toxins into our air.

Here is another facility that has increased its toxic output rather than reduce it in the past 10 years. Truck Accessories Group (doing business as Leer West) is the nation’s largest manufacturer of, well, truck accessories—camper shells and pickup-truck covers.

It ranks second in the region in terms of potentially harmful chemicals put into the air. Leer released 105,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment in 2001. The majority of the pollution was styrene, a suspected carcinogen.

1686 East Beamer Street, Woodland.

No. 5

… for polluting the Sacramento River and being the single largest industrial source of water pollution in the Central Valley.

The beauty of the TRI and other public information sources on pollution is that one can find the names of polluters and try to hold them accountable for what they release into the environment. The combination of regulation and public exposure has helped mightily to clean up our air and water.

This is not the case with the single largest industrial source of water pollution in the Central Valley: agricultural runoff. Central Valley farms send 1.3 trillion gallons of runoff water into Valley streams and rivers every year. Much of the runoff is contaminated with pesticides, sediment and animal feces and winds up in the Sacramento River and the river Delta, killing fish and threatening water supply. But the agriculture industry historically has been exempt from most of the pollution rules that apply to every other industry in the state.

In January, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) voted again to extend the waiver for agriculture for another two years. That decision is now being challenged in a lawsuit by several environmental organizations, including the river watchdog group Deltakeeper.

As Deltakeeper’s Bill Jennings put it, “Ag has always been the crazy aunt locked in the basement. We just pretend it’s not there.”

No. 6
AKT Development Corp.

… for layering Morrison Creek with 6 million gallons of development sludge.

Earlier this year, Angelo Tsakopoulos, the patriarch of AKT Development Corp., won the prestigious Robert Matsui Community Service Award for his “significant and lasting contribution to the cultural and educational life of the Sacramento community.”

Also significant and lasting was the 6-million-gallon layer of sludge that AKT allowed to flow into Morrison Creek last winter from the new Anatolia development being constructed at the corner of Sunrise and Douglas boulevards.

Investigators from the Central Valley RWQCB found that AKT did little to prevent storm water and clay from running off the construction site during the rains of late 2002 and spring 2003. As a result, nearly a mile of a Morrison Creek tributary was blanketed in goo. Between the money AKT saved by not following the rules on the storm-water permit, and the enforcement costs to the agency, Central Valley RWQCB staff figured AKT owed $571,000.

Compare that with the maximum penalty that could have been assessed under the water board’s formula: 5.9 million gallons at $10 a gallon, plus labor, and AKT could have been nailed for almost $60 million.

But on the day scheduled for AKT’s hearing before the RWQCB, several board members failed to show. Most notable among the no-shows was Rob Fong, Sacramento’s newest city-council member and a beneficiary of AKT campaign-financing largesse, who recused himself from the hearing.

That might have been good news for Tsakopoulos, but the fact that the water board punted could lead to even larger fines. Because the board couldn’t get a quorum, it referred the matter to the California attorney general. The attorney general isn’t saying much about the case or whether it will file a complaint. But judicial penalties can run three to five times higher than the kinds of administrative penalties that the regional board levies.

Of course, with the breakneck pace of construction around here, it’s easy to develop a costly sludge problem. Just ask Dunmore Homes. That developer was fined $110,000 (though the maximum possible penalty was about $7 million) for letting some 768,000 gallons of sediment-laden runoff flow from its then-under-construction Wildhawk West subdivision into Laguna Creek.

Anatolia: Sunrise and Douglas boulevards, Sacramento County; Wildhawk West: Gerber and Vineyard Roads, Sacramento County.

No. 7
Procter and Gamble Manufacturing Co.

… for releasing large sums of methanol and creating hazardous waste.

Methanol is the major chemical released here (and is, in fact, the most common regulated toxin released in the region). About 53,000 pounds were released into the atmosphere in 2001. But Procter and Gamble (P&G) sent another 1.3 million pounds of methanol along to the county’s wastewater-treatment plant. Methanol biodegrades with the aid of some helpful bacteria that are added at the wastewater-treatment plant. P&G also sent almost 43,000 pounds of copper and chromium compounds to a hazardous-waste-disposal site. Chromium compounds are classified as suspected carcinogens by the EPA.

The company also racked up a fair number of violations with the AQMD in the last two years, for a total of $12,440 in fines. In one case, the AQMD found that an uncovered sewer was allowing methanol to evaporate into the air, exceeding the conditions of the company’s pollution permit. P&G maintains it did nothing wrong but decided it was easier just to pay the fine.

P&G has reduced its levels of toxic releases consistently in the past 10 years, but it has remained consistently high on the list relative to other Sacramento facilities. P&G spokesman Raymond Parks said that’s because it’s easy to stand out in a region that has a relatively small industrial base, especially compared with the Bay Area or Los Angeles. “There’s really not a lot of competition,” Parks explained. He recognized that P&G has been among the top polluters for years but said, “We’ve been here for 50 years, and we want to stay here. We are trying hard to be good citizens.”

8201 Fruitridge Road, Sacramento.

No. 8
Chevron Products Co.

… for releasing 4,647 pounds of toxic chemicals and carcinogens into our air and for multiple violations of the Clean Air Act.

The Chevron terminal on Front Street, where the company’s gasoline trucks are filled, released a relatively small amount of toxic chemicals into the air in 2001, all byproducts from gasoline. About half of it was methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE); 1,600 pounds were N-hexane; and another 490 pounds were benzene, a recognized carcinogen. That 4,647 pounds doesn’t even land Chevron in the regional top 10 for environmental releases. Still, Chevron deserves special notice for racking up the most fines with the local air-quality district. A total of nine Clean Air Act violations in the past two years netted the corporation $18,660 in fines from the Sacramento AQMD. Many of these were run-of-the-mill, paperwork-type violations, we’re told, with no monetary penalty. One fine was for a gasoline-vapor leak on a rack that helps fill the trucks. The company also got slapped for—oops—polluting without a Title V pollution permit. We’re told the missing paperwork since has been filed.

2420 Front Street, Sacramento.

No. 9 Seven-Up/RC Cola
… for dumping fuel and battery acid into nearby Arcade Creek.

We used to think that “Make 7, Up yours!” ad campaign was funny, but we started to take it a little personally when we discovered what the plant was doing to a local waterway. Just last month, the EPA announced that Seven-Up/RC Cola had allowed fuel- and battery-acid-laden storm water to run off its property near Arcade Creek. Seven-Up also was found responsible for acidic storm-water runoff that could, if left unchecked, corrode and weaken the sewer system in the area. The EPA ordered Seven-Up to clean it up within 30 days or face fines of $32,000 per day that it is out of compliance.

2670 Land Avenue, Sacramento.

No. 10

… for leaking loads of ozone-depleting chemicals into our atmosphere.

We don’t hear much about the ozone layer anymore. Global warming and global war pretty much have crowded it out of the collective consciousness. And major industry reforms drastically have cut down on the level of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were the main culprit for eating away the planet’s stratospheric sunscreen.

But the campaign against CFCs goes on, as evidenced by the feds coming down hard on Earthgrains bakeries last fall, in the nation’s largest-ever crackdown on corporate CFC pollution. The federal EPA assessed a record $5 million against Earthgrains for faulty refrigeration equipment that was leaking the ozone-depleting CFCs into the atmosphere. The EPA dragnet included one Earthgrains bakery in Oak Park, whose share of the settlement came to $552,000.

3211 Sixth Avenue, Sacramento.

No. 11
Campbell Soup/ Silgan Can Co.

… for racking up air-pollution violations and venting respiratory and cardiovascular toxins into our air.

Though Campbell and Silgan recently split to become independent companies, they still occupy the same Franklin Boulevard address and make the list together for a combination of significant environmental releases and violations of their air-pollution permits issued by the Sacramento AQMD.

The Campbell/Silgan facility racked up 12 violations in the past two years, one of the highest rates in the Sacramento region. Many of the violations were reporting and recordkeeping errors. The site also got slapped for not maintaining equipment that cuts down on its release of toxic chemicals. In 2001, Silgan reported venting 17,627 pounds of N-butyl alcohol and 8,492 pounds of glycol ethers into the air. Both are considered respiratory and cardiovascular toxins. Mm-mm, good!

6200 Franklin Boulevard, Sacramento.

No. 12
Sacramento County Landfill

… for repeatedly breaking local air-quality-district rules, in the name of “Greenergy.”

Chevron racked up the most in fines from the local air-quality district in the last two years, but who broke the rules more often than anybody else? Why, the Sacramento County government, of course!

The county’s Kiefer Landfill tallied a first-place 13 violations with the AQMD in the past two years. The irony is that most of the violations come from the new landfill-gas-burning engines that produce electricity for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s “Greenergy” program.

Unlike more-efficient, cleaner-burning, natural-gas engines, Kiefer uses what basically is a modified diesel-train engine to burn landfill gas and create electricity. It’s considered renewable or “green” energy because the landfill gas (methane) otherwise would be released into the air. On the downside, the sulfur oxides and other fine particulates emitted by the generators are much higher than those from the typical natural-gas turbine.

In the landfill’s defense, AQMD officials say they weren’t really sure where to set emissions limits for the Kiefer plant. It turns out that the limits were unrealistically low. Now that new (higher) limits are in place, we don’t expect the county to keep showing up as the top scofflaw. Still, because the landfill gas accounts for a significant chunk of SMUD’s green-energy portfolio—about half—it makes it a little harder to part with that $6 “green fee” on our SMUD bills every month.

12701 Kiefer Boulevard, Sacramento County.