Toxic Sactown

Around this time of year, Bites always looks forward to opening a new batch of Toxic Release Inventory reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and learning about all the hazardous chemicals that industrial polluters pump into the environment. Yep, just one of those little things that makes the season so magical.

The latest TRI reports cover the year 2009—you’re always getting a snapshot of pollution that happened more than a year ago. Still, the data are incredibly detailed, and you can do your own investigating at, where you can look up polluters by ZIP code, county or state.

In Sacramento, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, two refining facilities near the west end of Broadway, both released about a 1,000 pounds each of toxic mystery meal to the environment—a combination of benzene, toluene and n-hexane. All nasty as hell, especially the benzene, which over the long term can cause leukemia, and at high levels can cause irregular heartbeats, tremors and/or death. Still, the lower levels of pollution from these two facilities is considered completely legal.

The most popular toxic chemicals in the region are ammonia and styrene. The Sierra Pacific Industries wood-processing plant in Lincoln released more than 20,000 pounds of ammonia into the environment. Grafil, a carbon fiber maker, also released 17,480 pounds of ammonia into the environment, along with 1,181 pounds of hydrogen cyanide. The later chemical was reportedly used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in northern Iraq in the late 1980s—though we assume at higher concentrations than are occurring at Grafil’s Fruitridge Road facility.

D&T Fiberglass released 16,486 pounds of styrene into the air. Styrene is only a suspected carcinogen, and is also associated with kidney and respiratory disease.

Props to Blue Diamond for using just 6,091 pounds of propylene oxide—a suspected human carcinogen that the company uses as a fumigant on its almonds at its processing plant on C Street. The same facility used 7,700 pounds of the stuff in 2008, and more than 10,000 pounds of it in 2007.

Much of the poisonous crud generated in the region is shipped off to licensed chemical-management facilities—often in rural, out-of-the-way parts of the state.

For example, Procter & Gamble reports that it shipped 216,000 pounds each of chromium compounds and copper compounds to a toxic-waste facility. The output of these compounds has been steadily increasing at P&G’s facility over the last few years.

In the past, Bites has looked at these numbers and thought of such “off-site” disposal as being fairly benign.

The people who live in Kettleman City may see it differently. This rural, mostly Spanish-speaking community near community about halfway between here and Los Angeles on Interstate 5 is home of Chemical Waste Management, the largest toxic-waste dump in the Western United States.

The small town, just about 1,500 people, has reported a troubling cluster of birth defects, including cleft palates and heart problems over the last three years.

A state investigation recently ruled out any connection between the toxic-waste facility and the deformities, but the U.S. EPA just fined the company $300,000 for failing to properly manage cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls.

No word on whether this will affect the company’s controversial bid to expand. After all, even in this down economy, factories in Sacramento and around the state keep churning out more toxic waste.