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1 Chemical Skews Data Listing State First in Toxics, Officials Explain

June 20, 1989|DOUGLAS JEHL | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A government survey released Monday showed that the volume of toxic pollutants emitted into the air, water and underground wells of California far exceeds that of any other state.

But government officials said that finding represents an exaggerated picture of the state's performance, noting that the chemical principally responsible for the state's poor showing is no longer regarded by the Environmental Protection Agency as toxic.

If that chemical--sodium sulfate--were excluded from the government assessment, the state's emissions of toxic substances would rank ninth in the nation, well behind Texas and Louisiana, which then would head the list.

26% of U.S. Total

The assessment is contained in a government report that seeks for the first time to provide a national inventory of more than 300 cancer-causing and other hazardous chemicals released by manufacturing facilities into the air, land and water.

Of 22.6 billion pounds of toxic chemicals emitted into the environment in 1987, California was responsible for 5.8 billion pounds--about 26% of the national total, the report showed.

But about 90% of the state's total derived from a Central California plant's vast emission of sodium sulfate, which was removed last week from the government's most-hazardous list because of its apparent lack of toxicity.

The facility, a Kerr-McGee chemical plant in Trona, Calif., 180 miles northeast of Los Angeles, takes sodium sulfate from dry Searles Lake and uses it in the production of a variety of products, including potash and soda ash.

Among the products is sodium sulfate itself, which is known as salt cake and used in detergents and the paper-pulping process. But most of the chemical, about 3.7 billion pounds, is discharged into surface water each year, while an additional 1.5 billion pounds is injected into underground wells.

Sodium sulfate was included in a list of more than 300 toxic chemicals that Congress required industry to monitor closely under a 1986 law. But senior EPA officials said Monday that they believe listing the chemical as toxic was a mistake by lawmakers.

'Basically Innocent'

"We think sodium sulfate is basically innocent," Charles Elkins, director of the agency's toxics program, told reporters at a briefing.

Other toxic pollutants released in greater volumes in California than in most other states included toluene, arsenic, lead and lead compounds and a variety of pesticides.

Separate EPA estimates of toxic emissions into land, air and water across the county had already been made public. But the release of the comprehensive "toxics release inventory" Monday marked the first time that the agency had analyzed many of its findings by geographical region.

The survey will be released publicly through a new computer database maintained by the National Library of Medicine. Under the program, individuals can use library facilities to obtain information about toxic pollutants released at facilities near them.

Among the available information will be estimates of the volume of toxins released at each site and an explanation of the health hazards each chemical may pose.

No official assessment will be made of the health risk posed by toxic releases at individual industrial sites, even though preliminary EPA studies have identified more than 200 sites believed to pose a particularly high risk of cancer.

Agency officials emphasized Monday that such studies are not final but said that they believe it important for the raw information about toxic emissions to be made public.

The new database, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly said, is a "breakthrough that will facilitate citizen involvement in assessing the risks of toxic chemicals and developing community strategies to prevent pollution."

Meanwhile, a separate list of major toxic polluters, based on EPA data and released by a leading environmental group Monday, lists a Compton plant among the nation's 30-largest sources of cancer-causing air pollutants by volume.

In 1987, the Crain Industries facility released more than 1 million pounds of methylene chloride, according to the report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The chemical, a solvent used as a paint remover, is classified by the EPA as a "probable human carcinogen."

Officials at Crain could not be reached for comment Monday on the report.

By comparison, the nation's top-ranking producer of toxic air pollutants--an Eastman Kodak Co. facility in Rochester, N.Y.--emitted nearly 9 million tons of methylene chloride that year, according to the report.

The National Resources report is based on industry reports to the EPA. An earlier list of polluters, drawn from preliminary EPA data based on health risks from certain chemicals, included several Southern California facilities but not the Crain Industries plant.

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