Worst in show

If pollution were pretty, these companies would all be winners!

Every year, Sacramento area companies collectively pump hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into the air and water: formaldehyde, cyanide, volatile organic compounds—a veritable toxic stew of carcinogens and other hazardous materials. Given its extent, you might be surprised to learn that many of the region’s major polluters are operating entirely within the bounds of current environmental regulations.

Still, a significant number of local businesses and institutions do break laws aimed at protecting the environment and human health. Annually, local regulators issue hundreds of citations, fines and penalties to companies, large and small. Violators are by no means confined to the private sector. In fact, government institutions give private companies a run for their money when it comes to breaking environmental rules and regulations.

Which is why we’re naming names.

What follows is a list of the region’s biggest and most incorrigible polluters. Call them the “toxic 10,” the local businesses and institutions that consistently release high levels of hazardous materials, or that have repeatedly broken regulations, earning the dubious distinction of being among the region’s worst offenders when it comes to harming the public’s health and the environment.

Some of these polluters have graced these pages in previous environmental rogues’ galleries (see “The Dirty Dozen” by Cosmo Garvin and Melinda Welsh; SN&R Feature; April 22, 2004), and it’s not too surprising to find them listed here again. Some things never change. But other contenders have drawn attention to themselves in new ways, such as by provoking the California attorney general’s wrath with particularly egregious behavior.

Our criteria included reports of regularly released smokestack-type toxic emissions, violations of environmental laws recorded by local air- and water-quality control boards, and, in some cases, lawsuits brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the attorney general and other government agencies.

Keep in mind, this is a limited list of specific polluters. There were so many possible candidates, we just couldn’t include them all. So we’ve tried to select the businesses and institutions that have repeatedly broken environmental rules, received big fines from regulators or have made their mark through the sheer tonnage of pollutants they’ve spewed into our air and water.

We’re not saying the toxic 10 listed here are all bad. A few have been making strides in the right direction. But most of them could certainly do a lot better.

Georgia-Pacific Chemicals: For racking up the biggest fines ever levied by a local environmental regulator in California

This Atlanta-based chemical manufacturer’s global reach extends to Brazil, India, South Africa and Sacramento, where it operates a facility on E. Stockton Boulevard in Elk Grove. Last year, the company paid one of the largest fines ever levied by a local environmental regulator, in this case the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department.

According to the EMD, the company mismanaged the wastewater from its production process. It failed to properly document some of the hazardous waste it generated, and it didn’t have permits for some of the equipment it used for processing that waste. For example, the plant didn’t have permission to use a “stripper” designed to remove volatile organic compounds, which are common in glues and solvents. VOCs are a component of smog and can be toxic to humans.

The county was prepared to do battle with the deep-pocketed corporation, but in November of last year, G.P. settled the case for $2.4 million and promised to clean up its act.

“We thought we were operating in good faith,” said G.P. spokeswoman Melodie Ruse, who noted that California has some of the most stringent hazardous-waste regulations in the country. “But when we met with Sacramento and understood they had a different view, we changed our practices.”

EMD officials think it’s the biggest fine ever levied by a local environmental regulator anywhere in the United States.

“This is far and away the biggest one of its kind in California, and I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest in the country,” said Dennis Green, head of the EMD’s hazardous-materials division. “Obviously, they have a big legal department at their disposal, but you’ve got to give them credit, they didn’t fight it.”

The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District cited Georgia-Pacific for the same problems and assessed $10,800 in fines.

Aerojet General Corp.: For 13 billion gallons of contaminated ground water

The Air Quality Management District dinged Aerojet General Corp. last year, to the tune of $12,000. Some of those fines were for violating AQMD’s Rule 456, which applies specifically to painting aerospace vehicles. It seems the rocket scientists were using a verboten solvent for cleanup in its painting operations. It was also cited for using the wrong kind of grit in one if its sand blasters.

Pretty standard stuff, but what really distinguishes Aerojet this year is the lawsuit filed against the company by Sacramento County in early July. The suit charges that Aerojet has contaminated a big chunk of Sacramento County’s aquifer and has refused to take responsibility for the cleanup. Aerojet and the county have been tussling with the issue for nearly a decade. The two parties had reached a tentative cleanup agreement in 2003, but that deal fell apart when the county figured out paying its share of the bill would require big water-rate increases for county residents.

The groundwater contamination is the byproduct of decades of rocket-fuel manufacture on the property and includes such nasty chemicals as trichloroethylene, perchlorate, and various VOCs. It’s nasty stuff. Research has shown that trichloroethylene is a carcinogen and can also cause heart defects. Perchlorate is known to cause abnormalities in developing children.

The underground plume of toxic chemicals has migrated well beyond Aerojet property and its still spreading. This has “resulted in the loss of numerous public drinking water wells,” and “an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment,” according to the lawsuit.

“There’s a huge area of the county where the groundwater is inaccessible or tainted,” said Keith DeVore, director of Sacramento County Department of Water Resources.

In fact, DeVore said Aerojet is annually pumping and treating more than 13 billion gallons of groundwater and dumping it into the American River. That’s billions with a “b”: enough water to supply 60,000 households, and it’s all going down the drain. The county is seeking enough money to cover the “past, current and future costs associated with the County’s groundwater contamination.”

“Depending on what scenario you’re looking at, that could wind up in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” DeVore said.

Government: For being an all-too predictable environmental scofflaw

We could easily have compiled a separate list detailing the various ways government agencies screw up our air and water.

Just last month, state water regulators fined the California Department of Transportation half a million dollars for allowing mud and storm water to flow into Auburn Ravine from the site of the state Route 65 Lincoln Bypass project.

Even the brain trust at California State University, Sacramento, occasionally strays outside environmental guidelines. In 2008, AQMD fined CSUS $30,000 for running backup power generators on “poor air quality days” announced by the air district, which is specifically prohibited by the university’s air-pollution permits.

If this sounds like bureaucratic hair splitting, AQMD program supervisor Kevin Leonard noted there are nearly 1,000 backup power generators in the county, accounting for about a fourth of the county’s stationary air-pollution sources. It all adds up.

Sometimes, even the best intentions can go awry. Last year, Kiefer Landfill, the Sacramento County landfill on Kiefer Boulevard—which uses methane landfill gas to generate electricity which it then sells to SMUD—got caught exceeding its air-pollution limits. Although Leonard said the landfill “just barely” exceeded its air-pollution limits, the county still had to pay more than $14,000 in fines.

Lopez AG Services Inc.: For wasting green waste

Composting is supposed to be good for the environment, right? Well, not the way Lopez AG Services Inc. was doing it. Last year, the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department slapped the south Sac composting facility with a $40,000 fine for storing too much “green waste” on the site, as well as keeping it piled up too long.

“Composting is a great way to reuse or recycle this waste stream,” the department relayed in a press release last year. “But storing green waste past the 18-month legal limit can lead to severe odor and other associated problems.”

In layman’s terms, the stuff stinks.

The company was also hit with a $50,000 fine for accepting residential green waste, which is prohibited by county rules. Companies like Lopez are permitted to collect green waste only from commercial landscaping sources. Lopez also racked up $29,040 in fines from the AQMD for other permit violations.

It may sound like penny ante stuff, but it all adds up to real money. Lopez paid a total of $134,000 in environmental fines last year, more than enough to make our list.

Kiewit Pacific Co.: For polluting without a license

The AQMD fined this national construction company for more than $200,000 last year, an amount that stands out among local air-quality scofflaws.

The violations occurred while the company was doing work on the new Folsom Lake Crossing Bridge, which was built to replace Folsom’s Dam Road after Sept. 11, because government officials believed the dam was vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

The new span may be safer from al-Qaida, but Kiewit Pacific apparently terrorized local air-quality regulators by operating several diesel generators without permits. “This went on for several months,” AQMD program supervisor Leonard said. The company is big enough to know better, with extensive operations in the United States and Canada. According to the Kiewit Pacific Web site, “Kiewit people are experts. From day one, our employees receive some of the finest training in the industry, coupled with hands on mentoring.”

Apparently, following local air-quality regulations wasn’t in the training manual.

SierraPine Ltd.: For releasing 80 tons of methanol and formaldehyde into the environment in one year

SierraPine Ltd. makes “reconstituted wood products,” or particleboard, at its factories in Martell (in Amador County) and in Rocklin. SierraPine didn’t break any environmental laws or rack up heavy fines like the companies above. But every year it releases more toxic chemicals, by volume, than almost any other company in the region.

That pollution is recorded in the Toxic Release Inventory Program, a database maintained by the federal EPA. According to the most recent data available, between the two plants, SierraPine flushed 145,000 pounds of methanol and 26,000 pounds of formaldehyde down the drain in 2007.

Methanol is also known as wood alcohol, which for some reason people used to drink—until they figured out it makes you blind and then kills you. No one is swilling SierraPine’s waste stream, but methanol is toxic and can also contribute to smog when it evaporates. Formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems, nausea and eye irritation, and may trigger asthma attacks in high concentrations. The EPA classifies it as a suspected carcinogen.

Nevertheless, the methanol and formaldehyde being released by SierraPine are well below the concentrations that federal and state regulators consider dangerous and is perfectly legal. Additionally, SierraPine officials say the company has recently installed new equipment that will nearly zero-out formaldehyde emissions.

Sierra Pacific Industries: For tampering with air-pollution equipment and getting caught

The years have not been kind to this Lincoln-based timber company. Sawmills have been closing down throughout the Sierras for decades. Not that the public feels all that warm and fuzzy about lumberjacks or logging these days.

The company closed its Quincy sawmill in May. Its Camino operation followed in June, costing 167 jobs. And the company plans to close its Sonora mill in August.

Company officials told The Sacramento Bee that the closure was due to “the economic and regulatory environment.” SPI spokesman Mark Pawlicki told SN&R those mills may reopen if the housing market comes back.

But a recent multi-million dollar lawsuit from the state of California can’t be helping company morale.

In 2004, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued alleging that SPI’s sawmills and wood-fired boilers in Lincoln and Quincy were egregious air polluters. “On hundreds of days … SPI polluted the air with smog-forming oxides of nitrogen (NOx), carbon monoxide, and particulate matter far in excess of permit limits,” the A.G. alleged.

Worse, the pollution often wasn’t reported and air-quality investigators found air-pollution equipment disconnected. “To mask pollution at its Lincoln facility, SPI tampered with the monitoring equipment so that it would indicate much lower emissions,” the A.G.’s lawsuit states. “The true extent of violations will never be known.”

Pawlicki said that the tampering was done by individual employees, without company knowledge, and that it was the company that reported the problem in the first place.

But in 2007, Sierra Pacific agreed to pay the state $8.5 million in penalties and attorney fees and to plow millions more into upgrading its pollution-control equipment. “Even if we would have won in court, we would have wound up paying the same amount in legal fees,” said Pawlicki. Presumably, the new monitoring equipment will be somewhat more tamper-proof.

Grafil Inc.: For releasing cyanide gas into the atmosphere

Grafil Inc. bills itself as the “worldwide leader in carbon fiber manufacturing.” The space-age material has been a boon to industry because it’s as light and strong as titanium, but cheaper and easier to work with. Unfortunately, manufacturing carbon fiber also creates some really nasty byproducts.

According to the Toxic Release Inventory, in 2007, the Grafil plant, near the corner of Fruitridge Road and South Watt Avenue, released 49,000 pounds of ammonia into the air, along with 510 pounds of the poisonous chemical hydrogen cyanide.

Hydrogen cyanide “can cause rapid death due to metabolic asphyxiation,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It’s ranked among the “worst ten percent” of toxic chemicals for the environment and human health, according to www.scorecard.org, which gathers information from the EPA, National Institutes for Health, OSHA and other agencies.

The good news is hydrogen cyanide gas dissipates quickly. As sketchy as it may sound, the 510 pounds of hydrogen cyanide Grafil spewed into the air in 2007 fell well within state and federal regulations. Note to readers: Do not try this at home!

Procter & Gamble: For producing the most toxic waste in the region

Based strictly on volume, Procter & Gamble’s sprawling plant near the intersection of Power Inn and Fruitridge roads is the region’s biggest polluter. The multinational manufacturer of goods including laundry detergent, razor blades and disposable diapers releases about 300,000 pounds of chromium and copper compounds every year, according to the Toxic Release Inventory. Once again, as heavy as that sounds, the amounts fall within state and federal regulations.

P&G’s Steve Lockwood says the 55-year-old plant “uses vegetable oils to produce ingredients used in consumer products.” But toxic methanol and copper and chromium compounds are also used in the production process. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment believes copper compounds damage the respiratory system. Chromium compounds are a suspected carcinogen, according to the EPA.

These chemicals are not just carelessly released into the environment. Procter & Gamble ships them to a hazardous materials facility, run by another company, which P&G pays to handle its waste. However, just because it goes somewhere else doesn’t mean it’s not serious pollution.

The company also poured 14,000 pounds of methanol down the drain in 2007 and was fined by air-quality officials last year for running a diesel-powered pump during and after a power outage, for longer than is allowed by the company’s air-pollution permit. AQMD fined the company $5,400.

Del Rapini Construction: For sludging Jackson Creek

By definition, real-estate developers are in the business of seriously disturbing the environment, which means they’re almost obligated to push the regulatory envelope. More than occasionally, they push too far.

Take the case of Del Rapini Construction, builder of the Pine Grove Bluffs, a 30-acre “relaxed mountain community … above the fog and below the snow,” in bucolic Amador County.

Fog and snow may not be problems for beautiful Pine Grove Bluffs, but sludge is another matter. According to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Del Rapini was a bit careless about its erosion control during the rainy season earlier this year. That led to the “discharge of highly turbid (muddy) storm water into the middle fork of Jackson Creek.”

“The Discharger was friendly but not cooperative,” with water regulators, according to one Water Board report. So the agency issued a $154,500 fine in July.

The company owner, Del Rapini, called the fine “ridiculous,” and said that his construction crew followed the law completely. He said the company’s erosion controls at the building site were simply overwhelmed by the heavy rains of a big January storm. “I have an attorney, and we’re going to fight it,” Rapini told SN&R. “This is just government figuring out any way they can to get a fee out of you.”