GM Clears the Air on Report That Overstated Company’s ’89 Emissions : Van Nuys: There has been improvement at the auto plant, but not the 86% reduction first thought.


Amid a stream of gloomy environmental news, it seemed like a glittering success story. General Motors, the numbers showed, had slashed toxic air pollution from its Van Nuys auto plant 86% in a single year.

A closer look, however, showed that the gains were less sweeping and initially appeared larger due to estimate errors. GM had made improvements, but also underscored doubts about the accuracy of pollution reports that companies file with the government.

The case also showed how relatively simple, common-sense measures can sharply cut industrial emissions.

The confusion began after GM estimated toxic emissions from the Van Nuys plant at nearly 4.3 million pounds in 1989--tops in the state. The estimate was contained in GM’s annual report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the federal “community right-to-know” law.


Then, a few months ago, GM filed its report for 1990 showing emissions of about 606,000 pounds--a spectacular reduction of more than 3.6 million pounds, or 86%.

However, a call to GM to learn the secret of its success revealed that the 1989 emissions had been vastly overstated. According to company officials, the company that year really had emitted about 1.93 million pounds, not 4.3 million. Although substantial, the improvement was not as profound as it had seemed.

Company officials said they discovered the mistake after GM was featured last fall in an article in The Times on toxic releases by San Fernando Valley-area firms. The article stated that GM accounted for nearly half the emissions reported by all Valley firms.

“People here took a lot of heat for that,” acknowledged Phil Kienle, supervisor of environmental engineering for the Van Nuys plant.


According to Kienle, GM officials decided to review the chemical usage and disposal data on which the 1989 estimate was based. They discovered a multitude of errors and filed an amended report with the EPA.

GM thus shed more than 2 million pounds of air contaminants. It remained the nation’s fifth largest toxic air polluter in 1989, based on discharges from all of its plants. But with the revised total of 1.93 million pounds, the Van Nuys plant gratefully relinquished its status as the state’s top polluter of 1989--falling into second place behind a Humboldt County paper mill.

“Nobody wants to be No. 1 emitter,” Kienle said. “Nobody wants that kind of press.”

But Kienle said GM did not change the report to burnish its image. “We looked to correct it,” he said, “not to make the number look better.”


According to Kienle, the snafu began when GM used temporary clerical workers to collate chemical-use records. Company officials erroneously gave the office temporaries 18 months of chemical data rather than 12.

That big mistake was compounded by others. “Bottom line, it was human error all the way,” Kienle said.

For their part, federal EPA officials did not question the accuracy of the initial report nor the amended estimate. That was not unusual, however. Although companies can easily make honest errors and may be tempted to understate emissions to avoid community ire, the EPA doesn’t police the accuracy of toxic-release data.

The EPA doesn’t audit the reports, an agency official acknowledged. “Nobody questions that particularly.”


Instead, the agency’s limited enforcement program--which includes two inspectors to cover all of California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii--focuses on catching firms that are required to file reports but don’t.

In GM’s case, however, there was independent support for the validity of the revised pollution estimate.

In filing the amendment, GM officials also notified the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The district supports its operations, in part, by charging companies excess-emission fees.

According to the air district, GM paid $438,702 in emission fees for 1989, and would be due a refund if it had overstated its emissions. Accordingly, district officials audited the revised estimate. They even contacted GM’s suppliers to verify chemical-use data. In the end, they basically concurred with the revised figures, said Wilma Wilson, an auditor with the district. And GM got a refund of nearly $170,000.


Kienle said GM is now more experienced and careful about its estimates, and is confident about the accuracy of its 1990 report.

The year’s estimate of 606,485 pounds reflects a one-year drop of 1.3 million pounds. Officials said economic factors and deliberate pollution-fighting measures are about equally responsible for the improvement.

Production of Camaros and Firebirds dropped by one-third from about 157,000 in 1989 to 111,000 last year, according to GM figures. That caused chemical use and air emissions to drop a corresponding amount.

But Kienle said GM also achieved major reductions through efforts to wean itself from chemical solvents and to change the way they are used.


For example, the company stopped cleaning paint booths with solvent cleaners, an operation that had wafted huge amounts of chemical vapors into the air. It switched to water-based cleaners, saving money in the bargain, said Kienle, “because the solvent that we would use to clean the booths also has to be disposed of, and by eliminating the solvent cleaner we eliminate those disposal costs.”

Similarly, GM formerly had cleaned some equipment by immersing it in a solvent dip tank, which also put out chemical vapors. Now the equipment is dried in an oven and the paint is chipped away.

Where GM still uses solvents, it does so with more care, Kienle said. In the past, “it would not be uncommon for someone to use . . . a hose technique” to apply solvent cleaners, which readily evaporated. Now, Kienle said, workers wipe surfaces with solvent-soaked rags.

As a result of such changes, emissions of TCA--a chemical cleaner that depletes the ozone shield--dropped from an estimated 667,000 pounds in 1989 to about 52,000 pounds last year.


And emissions of methylene chloride, a paint remover suspected of causing cancer, fell from about 400,000 pounds in 1989 to less than 10,000 pounds last year.

Previously, “we brought in solvent in tank trucks,” Kienle recalled. “It worked great. As far as getting paint off, nothing is better than methylene chloride.”

But “it’s a nasty actor,” he said.

Toxic Chemicals and Their Effects


Compounds emitted to the air in the largest volumes by Southern California manufacturers. Chemical: 1,1,1-Trichloroethane Human and Environmental Effect: TCA for short. Clear liquid used to degrease metal and clean electronic parts, among other things. Fairly low in toxicity, in that high dose is needed to cause immediate effects. Concentrated exposure can irritate the eyes and lungs, and affect the heartbeat and central nervous system. Workers have died from high exposure in enclosed spaces. No link with cancer has been proved in limited animal tests. TCA depletes the ozone shield that screens the sun’s harmful rays. Chemical: Methylene Chloride Human and Environmental Effect: Clear liquid used as paint stripper, metal degreaser and in adhesives, foam and plastics processing. Common ingredient in paint strippers sold to consumers. Irritates skin and in high concentrations affects heart and central nervous system. Considered a probable human carcinogen, based on animal tests. Chemical: Freon 113 Human and Environmental Effect: Odorless, colorless gas used as a blowing agent in foam manufacture, as refrigerant and cleaning solvent. Widely used due to its low toxicity, although high levels can cause eye, nose and throat irritation and asphyxia. Strong ozone depleter. Chemical: Perchloroethylene Human and Environmental Effect: Also known as PCE or tetrachloroethylene. Used in metal drying and degreasing. Also the most widely used dry-cleaning chemical. Detected in many local drinking water supplies due to ground-water seepage. Moderately toxic. Workplace exposure has resulted in liver, kidney and central nervous system effects. Considered probable human carcinogen, based on animal tests. Chemical: Acetone Human and Environmental Effect: Flammable liquid used as fingernail polish remover; also to make chemicals, remove paint and clean and dry precision equipment. Toxicity is low, but at high levels it can irritate the nose and throat and cause lightheadedness. Reacts in sunlight to create smog. Chemical: Ammonia Human and Environmental Effect: Colorless liquid or gas with irritating odor used as a household cleaner, as a refrigerant, in metal treating and synthetic fibers. Concentrated fumes can cause severe irritation to eyes and lungs. Chemical: Styrene Human and Environmental Effect: Flammable, usually colorless, oily liquid with pungent odor used in manufacture of plastics and resins. One of the most heavily used chemicals in the U.S. Can irritate eyes, nose and throat. Vapors contribute to smog. Suspected carcinogen. Chemical: Methyl Ethyl Ketone Human and Environmental Effect: MEK for short. Solvent used to make paints, paint removers, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics and artificial leather. Explosion hazard. Concentrated exposure can cause dizziness, headaches and blurred vision. Chronic, low-level exposure can cause decreased memory and slow reflexes. May cause reproductive harm, based on animal studies. Chemical: Toluene Human and Environmental Effect: Flammable liquid used as a gasoline additive and in making inks, detergents and pharmaceuticals. Skin and eye irritant. Chronic exposure may cause anemia, damage to liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Contributes to ozone, the main ingredient in smog. May be toxic to fetus. Chemical: Xylene Human and Environmental Effect: Flammable liquid used in fuels, lacquers and such household products as glues, fingernail polish and rubber cement. Can irritate eyes, nose and throat. Chronic exposure can damage the liver and central nervous system. Fatalities have resulted from breathing intense concentrations. Vapors contribute to smog. Chemical: Glycol Ethers Human and Environmental Effect: Used in resins, paints, dyes, cosmetics and brake fluids. Concentrated exposure can cause nausea, headaches and kidney damage. May be toxic to fetus. Chemical: n-Butyl Alcohol Human and Environmental Effect: Flammable liquid used as a solvent in manufacture of resins, varnishes, detergents and lacquers. Can cause skin, eye and throat irritation.