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Tuesday, June 19, 2007 | Business is booming in San Diego County, and so is the toxic pollution it produces.
While businesses throughout California have reported steady drops in the amounts of toxic chemicals they release into the environment, San Diego County companies have produced a steady increase.
Since 2001, California companies have cut their toxic pollution by 25 percent. The opposite has been true in San Diego County, where businesses have reported a 28 percent increase in releases of hundreds of toxic chemicals from sources such as smokestacks, spent ammunition and ship painting.
The jump in pollution between 2001 and 2005 can largely be traced to four facilities: Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the NASSCO shipyard, a Sony Electronics manufacturing plant in Rancho Bernardo and GE Osmonics, a Vista manufacturer.
Eighty-nine businesses throughout the county emit carcinogens and other hazardous pollutants and then self-report those releases to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which does not audit them. While the chemicals are toxic and can hurt human health, the pollution is released legally.
The EPA publishes the data annually in the Toxics Release Inventory, a database established in 1986 in the wake of the Bhopal disaster, when a poisonous gas leak from a chemical plant in India killed 3,800 nearby residents.
While the database is viewed as a critical tool for journalists, neighbors, activists and academics to learn about what toxic chemicals are being used and released in their communities, it has many shortcomings. The information is more than a year old when it is released. It does not characterize the risk neighbors face from the pollution. Nor does it say whether each listed facility is complying with the law.
Assessing the risk posed by the chemicals’ proliferation in the county is difficult. The threat they pose to neighbors depends on complex calculations of the chemicals’ dispersion, how close neighbors live and how much time they’re exposed to them. But the information highlights the fundamental role that toxic chemicals play in everyday life, from the training of the country’s military to the operations of the county’s businesses.
Marines training to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan are firing more bullets on small-arms ranges at Camp Pendleton, fueling the base’s 38 percent jump in toxic releases. The bullets contain lead, which can affect adult reproductive systems and children’s development. The base produced 146,000 pounds of lead in 2005 — about equal to the weight of 53 cars.
At the NASSCO shipyard, more ships are being built. When they’re painted, solvents escape into the air. The shipyard has reported a 220 percent increase in toxic releases — mostly coming as air pollution — since 2001.
At GE Osmonics, more water-filtration membranes, used in desalination plants for example, are being manufactured, and a key solvent used in their production has increased the facility’s pollution by 14 percent since 2001.
And at Sony Electronics, releases of ammonia into the air pushed the facility’s 92 percent pollution increase between 2001 and 2005. Sony has since halted production of televisions at its Rancho Bernardo plant, but still produces Vaio laptop computers there. It is not known what impact the halt will have on Sony’s pollution; the federal government’s most recent figures predate the shutdown. Sony did not return calls for comment.
For all that it reports, the inventory omits vital information. It will tell you that GE Osmonics was California’s 10th largest producer of toxic chemical releases. But the database offers little context, failing to say whether the plant’s neighbors should be concerned. Nor does it say whether the facility is in compliance with regulations, how its releases compared to similar manufacturers or whether the pollution is highly toxic. The 666 chemicals included in the database are not equally potent. A drop of one chemical may pose more of a cancer threat than a bucket of another.
But the database paints a portrait of San Diego’s business sector, its major manufacturers and their pollution. The military is responsible for much of the region’s toxic pollution. In 2005, Camp Pendleton’s lead emissions made it the state’s seventh largest producer of bioaccumulative chemicals — substances that accumulate in the food chain and pose a threat to human health.
Top 10 Emitters in San Diego County, 2005
1. GE Osmonics, Vista — 866,478 pounds
2. Camp Pendleton, Oceanside — 602,936 pounds
3. NASSCO, San Diego — 283,959 pounds
4. Sony Electronics, Rancho Bernardo — 115,076 pounds
5. Encina Power Plant, Carlsbad — 96,000 pounds
6. South Bay Power Plant, Chula Vista — 37,325 pounds
7. Illumina Inc., San Diego — 31,998 pounds
8. Sumitomo Electric Interconnect Products, San Marcos — 30,460 pounds
9. Naval Air Station North Island, Coronado — 30,355 pounds
10. Hollandia Dairy, San Marcos — 30,236 pounds
“Reporting inventories are helpful,” said Laura Hunter, spokeswoman for the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition. “Dischargers are very nervous about them and they put a lot of energy into not having them. The bottom line is that having the information moves policy.”
The military has used the data to set goals for reducing its pollution. The Pentagon aimed to cut its toxic releases 40 percent below 2001 levels, but fell far short of the goal. The military’s toxic releases instead increased 10 percent, according to Pentagon documents, largely as the result of increased firing on training ranges.
“It is extremely important that our Marines train with the same munitions and weapon systems they will ultimately use in combat in order to defeat our nation’s enemies,” Lt. Lawton King, a Camp Pendleton spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “Nevertheless, the Department of Defense continues to evaluate alternative pollution prevention programs for small arms munitions use.”
Other polluters on the list say they are taking steps to reduce their impacts. Colleen Connor, a GE Osmonics spokeswoman, said the company is considering using a filtration system estimated to cost $500,000 to remove n,n-dimethylformamide from its wastewater. N,n-dimethylformamide is a solvent that can cause liver damage in humans. GE Osmonics uses it to produce water-treatment membranes and sent 721,000 pounds of it — mixed with water — to be treated off-site in 2005. An Orange County metal recycler uses the mixture to cool its shredders, Connor said.
“The long-term (result) of these membranes is an environmentally happy product,” Connor said. “But we don’t make it out of thin air. You have to use chemicals to make the stuff that will clean up the water, which is just the way it is.”
Karl Johnson, a NASSCO spokesman, said most of the San Diego shipyard’s toxic pollution results from painting and applying anti-foulants to ship hulls to prevent barnacle buildup. The pollution will continue, as the shipyard has a 16-ship backlog for military and commercial customers and is aggressively pursuing more contracts, Johnson said.
“We’re built around aggressively managing and eliminating waste of these chemicals,” Johnson said, “using what’s needed and only what’s needed. We’re monitoring everything that we do.”
The state decrease in toxic pollutants was led by a 1.8 million-pound reduction at a chemical waste management company in Kettleman City.
While the pollution is monitored, state regulators keep a closer watch on local businesses than the federal government does.
The state of California is stricter than federal thresholds with many of its requirements for businesses that produce toxic releases or that keep toxic chemicals on site. While the EPA database provides information on 89 businesses, the San Diego Air Pollution Control District monitors air emissions from 1,500 businesses. The local air regulator takes its pollution data another step, running it through complex models to calculate the increased cancer risk that nearby residents face.
“We believe our numbers are more accurate,” said Tom Weeks, chief of the district’s engineering division. “In my opinion, our inventory has better data than the Toxics Release Inventory.”
San Diego County’s Department of Environmental Health maintains a searchable database of companies that store hazardous materials on site, though it does not say whether the chemicals are released into the environment.
Delays in the release of the federal data further reduce its usefulness. The information is more than a year old when it becomes public. Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog, said the federal government should improve the database to make it easier for the public to understand.
The public is “immediately left in a position of knowing less,” Moulton said. “And information can be a great leveler. It could be more accurate and more timely.”