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Toxic chemical releases from Sonoma County industries have declined steadily for six consecutive years, confirming the county's reputation as a magnet for clean business.

Industrial pollution dropped 76 percent from 27,950 pounds in 2007 to 6,801 pounds in 2012, according to a federal government report.

Going back nearly a quarter century, local industries released 332,508 pounds of toxics in 1988, the year the Environmental Protection Agency began tracking chemical emissions.

The steep decline is driven by a mix of factors, including changes made by some companies to clean up their production processes, the closure of other operations or their move out of the county, and the North Bay's long bid to build and recruit a wider network of businesses with a light toxic footprint.

"I think we have a lot of good corporate citizens in terms of the environment," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The EPA's latest report — called a Toxics Release Inventory — also documents declining industrial pollution in California and the nation, although agency officials said the annual survey does not assess the risk that chemical releases pose to the public.

It does not assess chemical use by agriculture, nor does it address other pressing issues, such as the interaction of various pollutants and the growing presence of pharmaceuticals and other consumer products in the environment.

Curtailing those releases and their effects on human and environmental health is a top priority among watchdogs, said Stephen Fuller-Rowell, co-founder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition

But, he acknowledged, "this is still a pretty nice, clean place to live" and that helps "boost the local economy."

Three Sonoma County facilities — the Coast Guard base at Two Rock, Asti Winery outside of Cloverdale and Clover-Stornetta Farms in Petaluma — together accounted for most of the release or disposal of 6,801 pounds of chemicals in 2012.

Two other firms released less than 100 pounds combined.

The EPA defines a release as the amount of a toxic chemical released to the air, water and land on site as well as the transfer of chemicals for off-site disposal.

Sonoma ranked 32nd among California counties, producing a tiny fraction — 0.02 percent — of the 31.7 million pounds of pollutants released statewide, the EPA said.

California ranked 30th out of 56 states and territories in toxic releases, which generally have declined since 2001, an EPA official said.

Back in 1988, Agilent Technologies, the North Bay's largest technology employer, was also the largest source of toxic releases, reporting 155,870 pounds of chemicals, nearly half the county's total at the time.

Agilent no longer releases any toxics, officials said.

The company, formerly part of Hewlett-Packard, spent four years and more than $60 million developing substitutes for ozone-depleting chemicals, including freon and 1.1.1-trichloroethane, said Tricia Burt, Agilent's environmental health and safety manager.

Agilent reported releases of the two chemicals from 1988 to 1992.

It also reported release of acetone from 1988 to 1993 and still uses it, but acetone has been dropped from EPA's list of reportable chemicals, she said.

Agilent reported the release of 10 pounds of nitric acid in 1993 and still uses it, but none is released to the environment, Burt said.

Releases under the EPA reporting program refer to normal usage of chemicals, not to spills or other accidental discharges, the company said.

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Agilent's record is "pretty amazing," said Stone, the county's economic development board director.

The Coast Guard Training Center, an 830-acre facility in dairy country west of Petaluma, is now the leading source of toxics, albeit in an unusual way.

Buckshot fired at a skeet range at the back of the sprawling base accounted for most of the more than 14,000 pounds of lead released there each year from 2006 to 201l, Coast Guard officials said.

In late 2011, the base suspended a private skeet and trap club's use of the range, dropping the lead release that year to 12,106 pounds, said Cmdr. Anita Scott, the executive officer.

The Petaluma Skeet and Trap Club, sole user of the skeet range under an agreement with the Coast Guard, cleaned the range and took spent buckshot to recycling in 2007, Scott said. There has been no cleanup since then, indicating that about 55,000 pounds of lead remains in the ground.

The Coast Guard is "actively investigating issues surrounding the back range," Scott said, including the options for future use of the skeet range. "We're not aware of any current risks (from the accumulated lead) for which we need to take action."

In 2012, the base reported the release of 3,859 pounds of lead, mostly from a small arms range used by Coast Guard personnel at another corner of the base, Scott said.

About 3,440 pounds of lead from the range was sent to an off-site facility, and most of the remaining 400 pounds of lead from diesel engine combustion was released into the air, said Cmdr. David Kirkpatrick, the base facilities engineer.

Counting 450 pounds of polychlorinated biphenals (PCBs) from power transformers and a pound of mercury compounds from lighting elements, the base released or transferred 4,309 pounds of toxic chemicals in 2012, nearly two-thirds of the county's total.

Most of the rest came from Asti Winery near Cloverdale, which reported the release of 2,160 pounds of ammonia in 2012.

The winery used a "highly diluted solution" of ammonia to neutralize the acidity of a wastewater pond so the water could be recycled, spokesman Joel Fisher said.

Describing it as "a natural biological process ... to maintain a healthy pond," Fisher said it is also a "standard industry practice."

The winery has reported releases of 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of ammonia every year since 2007, with 4,895 pounds in 2009, according to EPA records.

The EPA requires annual reports from facilities in specified industries that have 10 or more full-time employees and manufacture, process or use more than a threshold amount of 682 chemicals.

Food processors are included, but not farms raising crops or livestock.

The EPA reports only the weight of chemicals released and does not assess risk, which would include factors like chemical toxicity, exposure and "site-specific conditions," said David Yogi, an EPA spokesman.

Chemical releases nationwide totaled 3.63 billion pounds from more than 21,000 facilities in 2012, down 12 percent from 4.1 billion pounds the previous year, the EPA said.

Releases from 1,229 California facilities totaled 31.7 million pounds in 2012, a 14 percent decline from 2011, said Lily Lee, the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory coordinator for the Pacific Southwest.

For perspective, California's toxics total in 2012 fell short of the 33.7 million pounds from the nation's ninth-largest single source, Barrick Goldstrike Mine in northeast Nevada, the largest gold mine in North America.

The largest single source in California — Clean Harbors Buttonwillow, an environmental services company — reported 10.7 million pounds of chemical releases in 2012, making Kern County No.1 in the state.

Mendocino County was 42nd on the state list with 196 pounds. Marin and Lake counties were not on the list.

In Sonoma County, only two sources other than the Coast Guard base and Asti Winery released more than 10 pounds of pollutants.

Clover-Stornetta Farms in Petaluma reported the release of 250 pounds of nitric acid, and BIW Connector Systems in Santa Rosa reported the off-site transfer of 72 pounds of lead compounds.

Nitric acid is among the substances Clover uses to clean hundreds of miles of pipes in its milk-processing plant and to treat wastewater before it leaves the plant, said Matt McConnell, chief operating officer.

Pipe-cleaning must kill microbes and remove built-up fats and solids, he said, adding that nitric acid is commonly used as a cleaning agent in the milk industry.

BIW officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Attrition has played a role in Sonoma County's declining pollution.

Stero Co., a commercial dishwasher manufacturer in Petaluma, released about 500 pounds of chromium, copper, manganese and nickel from 2007 to 2011, according to EPA records. The company, which made no report in 2012, closed in 2013 in a corporate consolidation prompted by the economic downturn.

Standard Structures in Windsor reported 10,000 pounds of formaldehyde and phenol releases in 2007 and 7,358 pounds the following year. Both chemicals are from the glue used to make engineered wood products. The firm shut down in 2011 after selling most of its business to an Idaho company.

Cal Wood Door in Rohnert Park was a significant polluter in 1988, reporting 50,000 pounds of methyl ethyl ketone and toluene. The company reportedly was acquired by Weyerhaeuser in 1986.

The Economic Development Board credits the environmental concerns of local entrepreneurs for the decline, noting that 157 organizations have been certified under the Sonoma Green Business Program for reducing waste, conserving energy and water and reducing use of toxics.

"There's always more to do," Stone said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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