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Associated Oregon Industries creates group to weaken tough new rules emerging from governor's Cleaner Air Oregon project

Oregonians for Fair Air Regulations, newly formed by the Associated Oregon Industries business lobby, is calling for only narrowly focused changes in state air pollution rules in response to "last year's discovery of harmful emissions from two Portland art glass makers."

But what the state does not need, the coalition said in a statement distributed to the media, is "a wholesale rewrite of air-quality regulations that goes too far."

By establishing Oregonians for Fair Air Regulations, AOI is escalating its campaign against Gov. Kate Brown's Cleaner Air Oregon program that aims to reduce industrial air toxic emissions in the state.

"Oregonians for Fair Air Regulations is a coalition of dozens of Oregon manufacturers that support tens of thousands of jobs across Oregon," said Mike Freeze, a vice president of AOI. "Its mission is in its name — supporting and working with the state to ensure the adoption of fair air-quality regulations."

Change in the air

Last fall, Brown established Cleaner Air Oregon after a series of revelations showed that uncontrolled toxic air emissions from several Portland industries had been harming public health. A proposed framework of Cleaner Air Oregon's proposals, released last month, showed that the group intends to significantly change the way the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issues air pollution permits. 

On May 23, the DEQ will publish a draft of proposed changes in air pollution regulations advocated by Cleaner Air Oregon, a 23-member panel representing a broad range of interests.

Final action on the rules is expected next year by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, which oversees the DEQ and approves state environmental regulations. (See related story on this page.)

The new regulations are likely to represent a significant departure — and some say improvement — in how the DEQ regulates toxic industrial air pollution.

DEQ now issues a permit to each polluter without considering the health of the entire airshed. Under the proposed "health-based regulations," the DEQ's air permitting process would focus instead on controlling the total amount of toxic pollution that enters people's lungs.

Oregonians for Fair Air Regulations objects to this proposed new way of issuing pollution permits. "Regulations should be limited to emissions directly attributable to the business itself, not pollution from other nearby sources," the coalition stated. "It would be unfair to ask businesses operating near other pollution sources to be responsible for more than their share of pollution."

But many Portland residents say the state needs to be more concerned with overall industrial pollutants entering people's lungs, and the health impacts from cumulative toxic releases.

Hazards in Portland air

Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that Portland's industrial air pollution problems go far beyond Bullseye and Uroboros, the two glassmakers cited by the AOI-led coalition, and have been a problem for much longer than just a year.

Portland's air ranks among the most dangerous in the nation, according to EPA data published in 2015.

Most census tracts near downtown Portland rank among the nation's worst 1 percent in the EPA's National Air Toxics Assessment. The assessment shows that Portland's air is full of toxic metals and chemical compounds, including 49 that are carcinogenic. 

The air near the ESCO steel foundry in Northwest Portland is the city's most toxic, according to Sarah Armitage, an air expert with the DEQ. ESCO's air pollution permit allows it to emit the extremely carcinogenic compound hexavalent chromium along with 63 other toxic substances. Data released by the DEQ in 2011 showed that people who lived nearby could have expected industrial pollution in their air to cause 189 cancer cases per 1 million people, she said.

ESCO, which closed one of its two Northwest Portland plants in January, is not the only source of toxic air pollution in that part of the city. Toxic gasoline vapors leak from about 300 massive above-ground gasoline storage tanks along the riverfront between the Fremont and St. Johns bridges. Pollution from many other industrial sources, as well as diesel emissions from heavy truck and train traffic, funnel more toxic pollution into the air.

And yet, AOI claims that "Oregon businesses have a successful track record reducing air contaminants, improving Oregon's environment, and protecting community and employee health."

"I would have to put quotes around 'successful,' " said Sharon Genasci, a Northwest Portland filmmaker who has battled air pollution problems in her neighborhood for more than a quarter-century. She says AOI's lobbying efforts "behind the scenes" have blocked the DEQ from tightening regulations.

In 2001, she and her husband, Don Genasci, sued Chevron over the vapor emissions that occurred when it loaded and unloaded fuel, and won a settlement that paid for three years of air monitoring. She said their lawsuit also forced the DEQ to tighten gasoline vapor regulations.

The DEQ waited more than 16 years after that settlement before proposing the strong Cleaner Air Oregon regulations that would clean up the air in the rest of the city. Meanwhile, the number of Portlanders mobilized to counter air pollution has grown exponentially.

"Oregon has a track record of keeping pollution legal," said Jessica Applegate of East Portland Air Coalition, which was founded in 2016 and now has 3,500 members. "How can letting business legally poison families and neighborhoods for decades be considered successfully protecting community health?"

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