Three generations of Keith Olsen's family live in the small town of Crockett, nestled among acres of rolling green hills along the waters of the Carquinez Strait. Not one of the local historian's relatives has ever worked for C&H Sugar, a fact that makes his family something of an anomaly among the town's longtime clans. Back in the 1920s, some 95 percent of Crockett residents worked for the California and Hawaiian Sugar Refining Company, toiling away in its huge brick building along the waterfront.
In addition to being the town's economic lifeblood, the plant gave workers and town residents access to a virtual fairyland of public amenities. Separate men's and women's clubs on the C&H grounds offered everything from tea parties to a bowling alley. Company tennis courts, a shooting club, and swimming pools offered additional enjoyment, while the refiner's gardeners kept all of Crockett in bloom. It was, in every respect, a company town.
But over the decades, that relationship has slowly unraveled. Like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory in the Roald Dahl story, C&H these days seems a more forbidding place. The cane processor's brick fortress is tightly patrolled by security guards and protected by chain-link fences, and public tours were halted several years ago. Nor is the plant still a major local employer: Only a small fraction of Crockett's 3,200 residents now work there. And the company's contributions to the town, once doled out generously, have increasingly been the result, not of corporate beneficence, but of legal settlements.
The latest in a string of such settlements is expected next week, when C&H must appear before the California Regional Water Quality Control Board to address nearly $400,000 in fines the state has slapped on the company. The civil fines, related to pollutants released by C&H into the Carquinez Strait over the past seven years, come on the heels of other civil and criminal legal actions over the plant's pattern of water-permit violations.
Given Crockett's surroundings, it seems almost laughable that its quaint sugar mill would be a cause for environmental concern. At the C&H refinery, shipments of sugarcane are turned into the various forms of white and brown powders and cubes that you see at your local market. The refining process involves several stages of washing, clarifying, and filtering the raw product. And it involves a lot of water, hence the company's nearby treatment facility, which cleans the wastewater before it's pumped into the Bay.
By way of contrast, the town is flanked by some of west Contra Costa County's dirtiest industries -- including oil refineries operated by Tosco and Phillips Petroleum. But while the chemicals used by C&H to treat its wastewater are far less dangerous than petroleum distillates, the company has, in fact, racked up many more water-permit violations than its industrial neighbors. A report issued last month by the state water board details 144 separate violations by C&H from 1995 through 2001, including illegal releases of life-quenching chlorine and some 2.5 million gallons of improperly treated wastewater containing excess coliform bacteria, oil and grease, or other pollutants into the Carquinez Strait.
But much worse than the pollution from a regulator's viewpoint has been the company's falsification of paperwork. In 72 instances, according to the April 15 report, C&H released chlorine into the waterway but told the board that it hadn't. "Falsified reporting undermines the entire regulatory process," says Wil Bruhns, the board's enforcement coordinator.
The report hints that the sugar operation has tried to blame its problems on Parsons Engineering, a contractor it hired to oversee day-to-day operations at its treatment plant. But the board has ruled that C&H bears ultimate responsibility: Although it was Parsons employees who monitored the wastewater testing, C&H signed off on monthly compliance reports that were filed with the water board. "Had [C&H] closely monitored the treatment plant performance, they should have considered other corrective measures to mitigate the chlorine residual violations," the report states. C&H officials turned down requests to be interviewed for this story, and phone calls to Parsons public relations personnel were not returned.
Long before the fines came down, C&H was dealing with legal outfall from the water board investigation, which began in July 2000. That October, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance sued C&H based on pollutant violations uncovered by the state inspectors. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but that wasn't the end of it. State officials called in the US Environmental Protection Agency after discovering the falsified reports, leading to a criminal case against the manager of C&H's treatment facility. (The sugar refinery is majority owner and operator of the Crockett-Valona treatment plant; the public Crockett-Valona Sanitary District owns a seventeen percent stake.) The plant's former manager, William Perley, was indicted by a federal grand jury last April for filing false reports with the board. In January, he cut a plea deal with prosecutors that got him three years of probation and $2,500 in fines. Neither Perley nor his lawyer returned phone calls seeking comment.
It's debatable whether the sugar company's actions did any lasting harm to marine life. Bruhns considers it unlikely, but Jonathan Kaplan begs to differ. A spokesman for the environmental monitoring group BayKeepers, Kaplan says C&H's releases are indeed dangerous when considered cumulatively. "The problem we face in the Bay Area is not that there's one enormous, awful source destroying the ecosystem, but it's all the small releases that add up to an environmental crisis," he says. "It's like death by a thousand cuts.
"The EPA has set a zero limit for chlorine releases for a reason: chlorine is extremely toxic to marine life," Kaplan adds. "I mean, you're essentially sterilizing the bottom of the food chain."
The coliform bacteria violations are also of concern, he says, especially for people who recreate on the Bay, such as swimmers, kayakers, and windsurfers. People can become ill if exposed to the bacteria through breaks in the skin.
The falsified records are most troubling, however, since California's water-permit process depends largely on corporate honesty. Companies under the water board's jurisdiction must report any releases into San Francisco Bay waters; if those reports show that a business violated its permit levels, the company faces penalties. State inspectors drop in on the companies at least once a year to do their own sampling and peruse internal logs. If the inspections turn up conflicting data, the board may launch an investigation, as it did with C&H. On occasion, investigations are prompted by an inside whistle-blower.
This honesty system generally works, says Bruhns, offering some figures to back up his claim: Nearly all of the water board's information -- 98 percent -- comes from self-reporting by companies. In the last two years, the board has issued 65 penalties for a total of $1.9 million in fines. And of the companies cited, Bruhns says, C&H was the only one that had failed to disclose its violations.
Such behavior opens up a company to additional civil and criminal penalties. The C&H case represents "one of those instances where it's better to tell the truth, even if it hurts," says Scott West, special agent in charge of the EPA's criminal investigation unit. Had it honestly reported the releases in the first place, says Bruhns, the sugar company would be facing perhaps one-third of the fines it now does.
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