Cleaning up our toxic air
If a new panel appointed by Gov. Kate Brown has its way, Oregon could become a national leader in the battle against toxic air pollution from industrial sources.
Brown's 18-member Cleaner Air Oregon advisory board has asked the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to bring health impacts to the fore when it regulates industrial air polluters, a step few other states have taken.
The 18-member panel, which has met four times since October, most recently April 4 in Springfield, represents a broad range of perspectives including environmental, industry, labor, health and community concerns.
Its call on the DEQ to focus on the health impacts of pollution would represent a significant departure from how the agency currently operates, said Jackie Dingfelder, one of the panel's two co-chairs and a former member of the Oregon House and Senate, where she chaired the environmental committee.
Today, the DEQ issues air pollution permits to companies as though they exist alone in a vacuum, rather than in the real world where people breathe the emissions from multiple sources that mix together in the airshed.
If adopted by Oregon's Environmental Quality Commission, Cleaner Air Oregon's proposal would require the DEQ to address the fact that emissions from several polluters in the same area — in combination — can create unhealthy conditions, even if it considers an individual polluter's emissions to be safe, said Joe Westersund, a DEQ official who laid out the program's framework.
He said the DEQ is scheduled to publish proposed rules in accordance with the framework on May 23, when the panel meets again. The Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to begin its deliberations on the rule in April 2018.
In Portland, residents have seen their airshed become incrementally more dangerous whenever the DEQ issues a new air pollution permit. Residents have seen pollutants accumulate in the air to concentrations that can cause cancer or noncancerous effects to the heart, liver and brain, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
Sarah Armitage, a DEQ air quality specialist, said in Multnomah County the air is so toxic in some places that it can cause up to 180 extra cancers over the lifetimes of local residents, based on EPA data. Cleaner Air Oregon's goal is to reduce the carcinogenic effects of air to a fraction of that amount.
The DEQ's system of issuing permits does not consider the cumulative health impacts of multiple polluters, Armitage said.
Under the proposed new rules, the DEQ could deny a new permit if that step is necessary to protect the public.
The DEQ also could protect the public by seeking emission reductions at plants throughout the airshed, Armitage said. If an employer wants to locate a new plant in an area that's already saturated with toxic contamination, she said the DEQ could look for ways for all local polluters to reduce their contaminated output.
For example, in North Portland, malodorous toxic emissions from two oil recycling companies, American Petroleum Environmental Services (APES) and Oil Re-Refining Co. (ORRCO), have been generating complaints from neighbors for several years. The DEQ says emissions from each plant are safe, but during the permitting process it has never analyzed whether their cumulative impacts, plus those of their neighbors, also are safe, or whether alternative ways exist that could reduce their combined impacts.
The proposal from Cleaner Air Oregon also would require the state to set health-based concentrations for 215 toxic air pollutants, up from 52 under current law.
Cleaner Air Oregon's plan would be funded through fees closely based on a plant's specific impacts on the airshed. Under its current system, everybody but the heaviest polluters pay the same amount.
Jessica Applegate, a panel member who is also a founding member of the Eastside Portland Air Coalition, said that every dollar spent on reducing air pollution "brings $30 worth of economic benefits back to the community."
But the plan's adoption by the Environmental Quality Commission is not guaranteed. Governor Brown recently orchestrated a shakeup in the composition of the citizen panel. And representatives from Associated Oregon Industries and other industry groups have voiced concerns about the new proposals.
Tom Wood, a panel member and attorney with the Portland law firm Stoel Rives that often represents industrial polluters, said the panel should not "leap to the idea" that regulations that shut down factories for the purpose of reducing pollution will always protect public health.
"The greatest indicator of public health in a community is employment," he said.