Did DEQ Director Richard Whitman just help industry weaken Oregon’s air toxic rules?

DEQ Director Richard Whitman

UPDATED (2/16) Will the new Cleaner Air Oregon program die on the vine even before it goes into effect? And if so, many Oregonians are wondering whether DEQ Director Richard Whitman helped do it in.

Whitman acknowledges that he helped craft an industry-backed bill that’s now gaining momentum in the Oregon Legislature. The bill, Senate Bill 1541, would weaken protections from the health impacts of industrial toxic air pollution that are in rules drafted by a Cleaner Air Oregon citizen advisory committee, particularly for emissions from existing factories. For new industrial facilities, both approaches are the same.

SB 1541’s chief sponsor is Sen. Fred Girod, a Republican from Stayton.

The industry-backed bill, and another air toxics bill backed by proponents of Cleaner Air Oregon, SB 1508, were being marked up in legislative work sessions at the Capitol on Wednesday. SB 1508 would fund the implementation of Cleaner Air Oregon through fees paid by polluters.

In a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon with Cascadia Times, Whitman confirmed that he met a group of legislators convened by Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay. The group also included Mike Freese, a lobbyist with Oregon Business and Industry, and Heath Curtis, a lobbyist with the Oregon Forest Industries Council. Whitman said he attended “less than 10” of the meetings which were held over the last month.

But he said he was simply responding to requests for information from legislators and industry lobbyists and emphasized that he did not agree with everything that’s in their legislation.

As the meetings were taking place behind closed doors, his agency was writing the very Cleaner Air Oregon regulations that the industry-backed bill would weaken.

Convened by Gov. Kate Brown, the 23-member rules advisory committee crafted the Cleaner Air Oregon regulations in a transparent, public manner during a half-dozen all-day meetings held around the state over the last 18 months. Citizens on the committee said they devoted hundreds of volunteer hours on the project, unlike industry lobbyists whose time was compensated by their employers. SB 1541 was drafted in relative secrecy in closed-door meetings, as legislation normally is written.

The proposed Cleaner Air Oregon regulations would allow the state Environmental Quality Commission to establish the rules that limit the health risks that people incur when they breathe polluted air. Under SB 1541, the Oregon Legislature would set the allowable health risks in statute, effectively going around the EQC process.

Moreover, the industry-backed bill not allow the EQC to revise allowable health risks in response to new scientific findings.

“I provided technical advice to a group of legislators on language they were working on,” he said. “We’ve been very clear in communicating with legislators that we don’t like putting these health risk numbers in statute.”

Cleaner Air Oregon would require polluters to meet more aggressive health-based pollution standards than those in SB 1541, especially when it comes to non-cancer health effects such as respiratory diseases like asthma and COPD. SB 1541 would also result in a small increase in the projected cancer rate attributed to industrial pollution, Whitman said. Under SB 1541, the number of projected cancers attributed to industrial air pollution would double from 1 to 2 in a population of 40,000 people, he said.

News of Whitman’s participation in the alternative legislation was met with surprise if not outright shock by members of the advisory committee.

“Air advocates just heard about this for the first time two weeks ago,” said Katharine Salzmann, an alternate member of the panel and a neighbor of the Bullseye Glass plant in Southeast Portland that has been at the center of Oregon’s air toxic controversy since its toxic emissions first became known to the public in February 2016.

“This bill does NOT protect Oregonians and it does not close the regulatory loopholes as DEQ promised,” Salzmann said in a post on Facebook. “It also has a hidden clause that takes away citizens’ right to use public information (I.e. emissions inventory, modeling and monitoring results, etc.) to sue a company for trespass, negligence or nuisance!”

Whitman declined to say whether he supported either bill. “State agencies don’t take positions on bills. We provide technical input from folks who ask for technical input.”

“Obviously we support the program,” he said.

Correction (2/16): Whitman says Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay sent out invitations to the meetings where SB 1541 was crafted. A previous version of this story misidentified the persons who convened the meetings. On Thursday, Whitman said in an email, “Sen. Roblan sent the initial invite (which we helped his staff draft), my understanding has been that the meetings were convened by Senate leadership at Sen. Girod’s request.” However, Sen. Michael Dembrow, the chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview Thursday that the process was initiated by industry lobbyists who persuaded Sen. Fred Girod to draft the first version of the bill.

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