After 17 years of complaints, horrific odors traced to a North Portland refinery that recycles used oil have not gone away, despite its recent installation of air-pollution control equipment.
Some neighbors of the EcoLube Recovery plant on North Force Avenue, and workers at Portland Expo Center across the street, say the emissions controls haven't seemed to make much of a difference.
Tom Test, an Expo Center utility maintenance worker, said he's often noticed the plant appeared to emit "a very large cloud" of thick billowing columns of black smoke for a prolonged period of time, always at night.
The Expo Center's heating and air conditioning equipment is located on the roof, higher than the EcoLube Recovery plant. Depending on weather conditions, foul odors are occasionally drawn into the buildings, Test said.
"In a given weekend as many as 8,000 people or more can be exposed to the unpleasant odors," he said.
"With the large number of attendees that can be at events, we do get inquiries and complaints about the acrid odors," he said. "They are told not to worry, it's just the refinery and it's OK."
Most recently, he noticed the cloud one night during the week of Dec. 11.
"The following evening, again just after dark, I was exposed to very strong and unpleasant odors and fumes," said Test, a shop steward with local 3580 of the AFSCME labor union. "In less than a minute, my eyes were watering and my throat was burning," he said.
Test's description of odors occurring at night echoes complaints by neighbors who have been saying for years that the odors would often wake them up in the middle of the night, as reported by the Portland Tribune last March 6, (See "The Big Stink on Hayden Island," http://bit.ly/2Ayd1XU)
"I work a PM shift every three weeks and spend a lot of time outdoors in back of the facility," Test said. "I see these emissions on a regular basis when I work these shifts. They last just a few minutes and are most likely not observed by many."
Other neighbors, such as Chandra Dragulia, who lives a few miles east of the refinery, have noticed some improvement.
"I haven't noticed 'the smell' recently, and have had less panic attacks at 3 a.m., which was a thing for me," Dragulia says.
However, odor complaints from nearby residents keep coming in, said Beven Byrnes, a spokeswoman for North Harbor Neighbors. "The air still stinks from poisonous toxins," she said.
Jeff Geisler, chairman of the Hayden Island neighborhood association known as HiNooN, said he inspected the plants in early December and found that they were "no less horrific" than before the new pollution-control equipment was installed.
On one early-December evening, as Geisler sat in his car in front of the EcoLube refinery on North Force Avenue, he wrote in an email, "This is as bad a smell as I've witnessed. I'm actually getting nauseous, and nothing visual at the stacks."
Neighbors have not attributed recent odors to a second North Portland recycled-oil refinery, Oil Re-Refining Co., known as ORRCO. ORRCO previously owned the EcoLube facility and had previously been identified by environmental regulators as another source of the odors.
A few moments after visiting the EcoLube refinery, Geisler drove about a mile to the ORRCO refinery on North Suttle Road. "I'm at ORRCO, which is operational," Geisler relayed in an email, "but no odor."
EcoLube not getting complaints
These renewed complaints came as a surprise to EcoLube Recovery spokesman Joe Stanaway, who said the company recently installed air-pollution control equipment known as thermal oxidizers. EcoLube also developed an odor management plan that would be put into action whenever the company is notified that the odors have become a problem again.
"We have not been contacted by neighbors regarding any odor complaints since the installation of the thermal oxidizer," Stanaway said.
The thermal oxidizers are designed to burn hazardous pollutants, which Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials believed had caused at least some of the odors. The DEQ required the company to install the oxidizers and develop the odor maintenance plan before it would renew EcoLube's air pollution permit. The DEQ renewed the permit in September.
According to the DEQ, the plant had originally installed thermal oxidizers decades ago but unlawfully removed them in 2006.
The DEQ says it has determined that EcoLube is now in compliance with the permit. On its website, DEQ states that thermal oxidizers are "an effective means of controlling emissions of volatile organic compounds," which are believed to be the cause of at least some of the odors. Preliminary testing has shown that EcoLube's thermal oxidizer "is functioning properly," DEQ says.
DEQ to grant ORRCO permit
Michael Orman, a DEQ air quality manager, said he also expects the air pollution permit for the ORRCO plant to be renewed sometime in the next few months. ORRCO's permit, which expired in 2013, has been administratively extended until the agency formally renews it.
Under EcoLube and ORRCO's air pollution permits, the two plants combined are allowed to emit up to 9.3 tons of toxic pollution per year, almost equally divided between them. Those annual emissions include about 1,000 pounds of toxic vapors that are vented from the storage tanks alone, according to DEQ records obtained by the Tribune under a public records request.
"DEQ is in the process of communicating with both companies about ways they can further reduce odors and emissions," the agency says on its website. "Any additional action by the companies would be above and beyond what current environmental law requires."
In the future, the DEQ could tighten both permits if the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission approves proposed Cleaner Air Oregon rules later this year.
Cleaner Air Oregon rules would require the DEQ to consider the cumulative health effects of toxic emissions from all industrial polluters located near each other — before it issues air pollution permits. The rules would apply to the used-oil refineries as well as any other industrial polluter in their area, Orman said.
As reported in Tuesday's Tribune, (see http://bit.ly/2mknGRU) two city agencies found dozens of fire and building code violations at the plants during inspections in 2016, a year after the DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency checked into the odors and linked them conclusively to EcoLube and ORRCO.
In 2016, the Portland Fire Marshal's office and the Bureau of Development Sevices cited the two plants for 128 violations of the city's fire and building codes, and issued fines totaling more than $16,000.
When interviewed by a Tribune reporter last summer, the DEQ's Orman said he was not aware of safety problems at the plant that were uncovered by the Portland Fire Marshal and the Portland Bureau of Development Services.
Despite EcoLube's record of questionable safety practices, the DEQ renewed the plant's air pollution permit and a solid waste disposal permit in September.
Both North Portland oil recyclers rack up PCB violations
EcoLube Recovery, which recycles used oil at a North Portland refinery, has been unlawfully accepting deliveries of waste contaminated with highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and storing it on site in violation of its solid waste disposal permit, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality announced in mid-December.
The DEQ said it has known for at least a year that the plant had been storing nearly 200,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated waste inside one of the 51 storage tanks on site, but it had not notified EcoLube of any violations. On Dec. 13, it issued a warning letter after finding additional PCBs in a second tank at EcoLube, and inside a truck used for transporting the material. The plant is located on North Force Avenue, across the street from the Portland Expo Center.
State and federal laws forbid anyone from accepting delivery of used oil contaminated with PCB concentrations of 2 parts per million or greater without a permit, the DEQ letter noted. The state environmental regulator said it detected PCB levels of up to 12 parts per million of PCBs in the first tank, 5 parts per million in the second tank, and 20 parts per million in the truck.
The DEQ says the company also unlawfully failed to notify the agency when it first received the PCB-contaminated material. EcoLube officials do not dispute the finding of PCBs on their property.
"Oil on site with low levels of PCBs has been a publicly known issue for six years," said Joe Stanaway, a spokesman for EcoLube Recovery, which purchased the plant about a year ago.
It's not clear if EcoLube owned the plant when it accepted delivery of the PCB-laced material found in the second tank and the truck.
In its warning letter, the DEQ ordered Ecolube Recovery to clean out and decontaminate any tanks used for storing PCBs, and to "cease accepting any used oil with PCB concentrations above 2 ppm."
Stanaway said the plant's previous owner, American Petroleum Environmental Services, or APES, had been coordinating the "proper off-site disposal for the majority of this material" before selling the company to EcoLube last year.
EcoLube "is continuing the wrap-up of this project with final disposition of all remaining PCB oil on site at an EPA-approved out-of-state facility," Stanaway said. "The tank will be decontaminated per regulatory rules and put back into use at the end of the disposal process."
For now, the DEQ is not assessing a fine.
"Should these violations remain uncorrected or should you repeat any of these violations, this matter may be referred to DEQ's Office of Compliance and Enforcement for formal enforcement action, including assessment of civil penalties," the Dec. 13 letter said.
Not a new problem
PCB contamination has been a problem at the EcoLube site and at ORRCO, a second used-oil recycler in North Portland that once owned the EcoLube plant, since 2010. That was when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first found wastes containing PCBs at both oil refineries.
PCBs are potent carcinogens that once were widely used for their insulating properties in machinery and electrical equipment. In 1979, Congress enacted the Toxic Substances Control Act, which strictly controls how PCBs should be handled. It's now illegal to store PCB-contaminated waste without EPA approval, and PCBs must be destroyed in an approved incinerator.
The EPA charged ORRCO with seven violations of the law in 2013 for unlawfully collecting, transporting, storing, and processing used oil containing PCBs and hazardous waste.
When the EPA launched its 2010 investigation, both plants were owned by ORRCO. In 2011, ORRCO applied to the EPA for a permit to store PCBs at its sites in Portland, Eugene, Spokane and Klamath Falls, EPA documents show. The EPA denied the request. In 2011, ORRCO sold the Force Avenue plant to APES, which sold it to Ecolube last year.
In 2013, the EPA issued a consent agreement and final order requiring ORRCO to destroy 71,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated waste stored at its site. ORRCO faced a $450,000 fine if the material was not destroyed by October 2016.
ORRCO met the deadline, said Scott Briggs, the plant's chief operating officer.
"All PCB-contaminated material has been shipped to a permitted disposal facility and all the tanks have been cleaned by a contractor," Briggs said last month.
The EPA said ORRCO had been fueling its burners with 53,800 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil and illegally selling oil products containing PCBs to consumers. ORRCO did not dispute or confirm the allegations.
The 2013 order said nothing about what should be done about PCBs at EcoLube's site, which are now being cleaned up.
A DEQ report in October shows that the PCBs stored at Ecolube are mixed with mercury, arsenic, barium, chromium and lead, among 16 other toxic substances, inside a 200,000-gallon tank known as "Tank 12." Michael Orman, a DEQ air quality manager, said the tank is "nearly full."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.