Residents concerned about foul-smelling air in North Portland packed a room at the Red Lion Jantzen Beach hotel Tuesday night and gave Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials an earful of disapproval for the agency's longstanding failure to address odor and associated air pollution problems in their part of the city.
Aside from a handful of industry representatives, the crowd of about 150 people appeared unified in accusing the agency of being far too cozy with two oil-recycling companies that are said to be a major source of the odors. During the informational meeting sponsored by DEQ, residents also said the state agency has been insufficiently concerned about the public's health.
Recently, with the help of an infrared imaging camera operated by a team of engineers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the DEQ traced the odors to two oil recycling companies, American Petroleum Environmental Services and Oil Re-Refining Co. which operate plants near the Expo Center.
Several people told DEQ officials what it's like to wake up in the morning with nausea, a bloody nose or a painful clump of mucus at the back of the throat after a fitful night of breathing the oil companies' foul stench. One woman noted that the DEQ's persistent use of the word "odor" indicates the agency may not fully understand the health problems experienced when people inhale such air.
"An odor can be nuisance," said Sarah Clark, an air quality activist in Southeast Portland. "Somebody is odorific, and you don't want to sit by them. But an odor is also an indicator of a bigger problem."
Many people asked the DEQ to issue a "cease and desist" order requiring the two companies to shut down if they fail to eliminate the odors.
James Giler, a New York transplant, said the Department of Environmental Conservation in his home state takes a tough approach with polluters. "They are not friends," he said. "Their charter is to protect the environment. I've been on projects where polluters were hauled off in handcuffs."
Then, in a statement directed at several DEQ officials seated at the front of the room, Giler said, "You are friends of the polluters."
Kevin Alden, who moved to Portland from California, said environmental authorities in that state are not afraid to enforce compliance by ordering a shutdown. "If you shut a company down, they will get everything done in a very short time," he said.
But Nina DeConcini, Northwest regional administrator of the DEQ, said the agency does not have the authority under Oregon law to take such actions.
The DEQ is in the process of renewing air pollution permits for the two plants, with new operating requirements. The current permits each expired in 2013. At the same time, the DEQ is overhauling its air pollution permitting program under a program called Cleaner Air Oregon. A major part of Cleaner Air Oregon's mission is to retool the permitting process so that permits are more protective of public health.
Michael Orman, an air quality manager at the DEQ, said that the permits issued to the oil recycling companies will be consistent with the new system of regulation devised by Cleaner Air Oregon, even if they go into effect before the overhaul is finished.
In 2006, operators of the current American Petroleum Environmental Services (APES) plant, under prior ownership, unlawfully removed air pollution equipment known as "thermal oxidizers," a violation of its permit for which it has never been prosecuted. Cathy Baker, a resident of Hayden Island, said the DEQ's perplexing failure to enforce the permit could easily be rectified.
"If this company was able to remove the thermal oxidizers without your knowledge, why can't they be forced to put them back in place as soon as possible?" she asked.
Orman replied that the DEQ and the company reached an agreement last December that would allow the plant to continue operating while it installs the new oxidizers. The company has said it expects to finish the work in May.
Many people asked the DEQ to monitor air pollution emissions at the companies' smokestacks 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
"When are you going to do proper monitoring at the stack, when the emissions are coming out?" asked Mary Lou Putman, a resident of Hayden Island. "It has to be vigilant. It has to be 24/7. This is people's lives here."
Orman said the current plan is to conduct no more than a single monitoring test after the equipment is installed. But that could change when the new permits are written.
Some residents say no amount of new equipment or revamped regulations will repair the rift between the public and the DEQ. "My question has to do with trust," Putman said. "Most of the people here don't trust you."
"I can't tell you that you can trust us tonight," DeConcini responded. "We have to earn that."