DEQ cracks down on industrial air polluters
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has launched a review of six of the worst polluters in the state — an important early step in its implementation of the new statewide pollution reduction program known as Cleaner Air Oregon.
The six companies are Owens-Brockway Glass Container Inc. and Columbia Steel of Portland; Entek of Lebanon; Springfield-based Roseburg Forest Products; Amerities West of The Dalles; and Chemical Waste Management of Arlington. The agency selected the sites based on preliminary emission reports.
The DEQ convened a 19-member advisory panel this month in Portland to work on health-based regulations to protect people from toxic pollution emitted by those companies and hundreds of others like them. The rules would address a range of diseases linked to toxic pollution, including respiratory and neurological disorders as well as impaired childhood development, but not cancer. The DEQ addressed carcinogenic pollution during a previous rulemaking process.
Cleaner Air Oregon requires the DEQ to reduce, but not eliminate, health problems associated with toxic pollution with the expectation people will get sick with less frequency and severity.
People who live near sites on the DEQ's list say they have grown weary of the agency's long-standing failure to grant them relief from dangerous air emissions. One typical example is the Owens-Brockway plant near Portland International Airport in the Cully neighborhood. For years, nearby residents have been calling for protection from dangerous lead and heavy metal particulates released by the plant, with little success.
Those emissions, said Gregory Sotir of the Cully Air Action Team, a neighborhood group, "affect children and neighbors in a dangerous way, or coat the local community's gardens and small farms with dangerous metals."
Sotir urged DEQ to require Owens-Brockway to install air filters that block the release of the particulates. Similar Owens-Brockway plants around the country use the filters.
"For some reason, they refuse to install this technology at their Portland facility," he said.
Owens-Brockway did not respond to the Portland Tribune's request for comment.
Cleaner Air Oregon requires polluters to modify their operations whenever the DEQ finds toxic emissions exceed a threshold known formally as a "hazard index." Companies that rate extremely high on the hazard index may be ordered to cease operations until the cause of the pollution is addressed. DEQ officials are trying to balance the economic cost of pollution-reduction measures with potential health benefits from cleaner air.
DEQ is considering at least two different regulatory strategies to tackle the problem. Most environmentalists say DEQ should provide the strongest possible health protection allowed under the law, if not stronger. For their part, industry groups are advocating much weaker levels of protection.
The public will get a chance to comment on the draft rules once they are published this fall. Final action on the rules by the state Environmental Quality Commission is expected early next year.
There is general agreement that all options on the table would constitute a dramatic improvement over Oregon's previous system of regulating toxic air pollution. Cleaner Air Oregon would regulate some 600 different toxic chemicals in the air — most of them for the first time ever in Oregon. The list of chemicals includes substances such as arsenic, cadmium and naphthalene linked to a host of serious and severe health problems.
"I want to voice my support for the most protective outcome that can be achieved through this process," said advisory panel member Mark Riskedahl, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, an environmental law group based at Lewis & Clark Law School. "There's nothing in the record that suggests it's going to be the death knell of Oregon's economy. Environmental regulation drives innovation, progress and change."
But Ellen Porter, an executive with Roseburg Forest Products, said the approach advocated by Riskedahl "can be job-killing. We don't have any evidence at this point that it won't be. We do have evidence that environmental regulations can close facility doors."
Gov. Kate Brown first proposed Cleaner Air Oregon in 2016 after a moss study by the U.S. Forest Service identified Bullseye Glass Co. as a source of toxic pollution in Southeast Portland. The same study also identified Precision Castparts, the Southeast Portland airplane parts manufacturer, as a heavy emitter of air toxics. The information spurred neighborhood groups near both plants to lobby the Oregon Legislature to fund Cleaner Air Oregon, which it did in 2018 with the passage of Senate Bill 1541.
Another member of the advisory panel, Huy Ong, executive director of OPAL, a Portland-based group advocating for environmental justice, said SB 1541 was "a compromise" sought by business interests that watered down Gov. Brown's original intent. He said the low-income people and people of color that OPAL represents were "left out of the process" when the law was written.
The new rules are not likely to be permanent. Under SB 1541, key provisions of Cleaner Air Oregon sunset in 10 years. Starting in 2029, the DEQ will be able to tighten air toxic health protections if it chooses to do so, unless the law is changed.
It is not yet clear how the new rules would impact communities like The Dalles which, for many years, has been plagued by toxic air pollution emitted by the Amerities creosote plant in town. Monitoring in 2017 found that air throughout the city is far more dangerous than the level DEQ deems safe.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says creosote pollution comprises as many as 10,000 different compounds, more than 94% of which are not regulated by Cleaner Air Oregon.
In the past, the DEQ said it was powerless to control Amerities' pollution, despite angry complaints from residents that the foul air makes them sick. But now, according to David Farrer, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority, the agency has a promising new tool in Cleaner Air Oregon.
He said the naphthalene emitted by Amerities causes both cancer and noncancer health effects. Under the new law, Amerities would be regulated based on whichever type of risk — cancer or noncancer — resulted in the more stringent requirements.
"For some contaminants that would mean cancer risk, for others it would mean noncancer risk," Farrer said. "In the case of naphthalene, specifically, the cancer risk is likely to result in the most stringent regulation."
Meanwhile, neighbors of the Bullseye, Precision Castparts and Amerities plants have been pursuing solutions to toxic air in the courts.
In September 2018, plaintiffs in a class action case against Amerities won a $1.25 million settlement. In May 2019, a Multnomah County court approved a $6.5 million settlement in the class action case against Bullseye. A similar case against Precision Castparts is pending. Plaintiffs are waiting for the Multnomah County court to certify their case as a class action.
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