Citizens, industry at odds over new air toxic rules


DEQ falls short in protecting residents' health, some charge are recent hearing

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's new Cleaner Air Oregon program doesn't go far enough to protect the health of people who live near industries that emit toxic air pollution, several Portland residents told the DEQ at a public hearing on the program last week.

However, industry representatives said Cleaner Air Oregon could cost jobs, time and money, and won't solve the state's air pollution problems.

Cleaner Air Oregon is an initiative of Gov. Kate Brown designed to tighten what some see as Oregon's loose regulations governing toxic air emissions.

State Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, applauded Cleaner Air Oregon's crackdown on industrial emissions, but said it also should have addressed the dangerously toxic particulates emitted by diesel engines and woodstoves.

"I don't think those two areas should be separated from industrial air pollution because people breathe the same air," she told the approximately 100 people who attended the hearing at Portland Community College's Southeast campus.

Misplaced priorities?

David Harvey, environmental director at Gunderson LLC, a rail-car manufacturer located on the Northwest Portland waterfront, agreed that the DEQ instead should have reined in woodstove smoke and vehicle exhaust. But he said industrial emissions already are tightly controlled.

Gunderson recently reduced its emissions by "roughly one-third," he said, and noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that Gunderson's emissions pose an overall level of risk that is "acceptable."

"Our jobs are being put at risk, and DEQ misses the chance to focus on what will really make a difference in the health and safety of the public," he said.

The rules are scheduled to go before the five-member Oregon Environmental Quality Commission next summer. To pay for the 10 new employees needed to run the program, DEQ officials said they will ask next year's session of the Oregon Legislature for permission to raise between $1.9 million and $3.1 million by charging user fees to polluters. No general fund money would be targeted.

"The funding for this is critical," Keny-Guyer said. "I hope we fully fund this program."

The new rules could require polluters to assess the health risks of ingesting 260 dangerous chemicals commonly found in air pollution, as well as report on their use of 340 other chemicals.

Cleaner Air Oregon will attempt to reduce the number of cancer cases thought to be caused by many of those chemicals. Polluters would be required to keep toxic air emissions below what the DEQ calls "risk action levels." The rules block any new industrial polluter from causing an additional 500 new cancers per 1 million people. Older companies would be allowed to cause up to 50 new cancers. The rules require the DEQ to take additional actions if health risks increase.

An innovation in the rules would require the DEQ to consider the cumulative health impacts of emissions from multiple nearby sources when issuing new permits.

The program was the brainchild of Brown, who proposed it following revelations last year that the DEQ had failed to notice that two Portland glass companies, Bullseye and Uroboros, had been releasing dangerous amounts of carcinogens and chemicals into the air.

In comments at the hearing, Chris Wilson, an environmental manager at Gunderson, said the new air toxics regulations could impinge on its use of manganese, a key ingredient in its welding wire used in the manufacture of rail cars.

Manganese concern

Gunderson emits 16 of the 260 dangerous compounds on the DEQ's list, including manganese, which threatens the development of young minds, though it is not a known carcinogen. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, manganese can impair a child's "brain development and cause a decrease in the ability to learn and remember."

The EPA's Toxic Release Inventory shows that Gunderson releases about 1,600 pounds of manganese per year.

The DEQ has detected a hot spot of manganese pollution, about several square miles in size, in the general area of Gunderson's plant. The area also includes several residential streets in the northern section of the Pearl District as far south as Northwest Lovejoy Street, apartments, condos, a middle school and a preschool. The DEQ's modeling shows that manganese levels throughout the area range from one to five times greater than a health benchmark.

But Wilson said Gunderson's manganese emissions pose no health threat because the area immediately around the plant is zoned for industrial use. Several other nearby companies also emit manganese, including several steel foundries and gasoline companies, EPA records show.

The EPA's National Air Toxics Assessment shows that Portland's airshed contains dozens of toxic metals and chemical compounds, including 49 that are carcinogenic. In addition to cancer, the rules would address pollution capable of causing respiratory diseases and other noncancer illnesses.

Greg Bourget, executive director of Portland Clean Air, an advocacy and research group, cited data from the national assessment that shows Portland ranks "as the worst city in the United States for respiratory distress" caused by air pollution, and that Multnomah is the nation's third-worst county in that category.

JM Davis, who lives near Southeast Portland's Bullseye factory, said air pollution also can cause health problems when people eat plants from their gardens. She said that she tested 16 greens and vegetables from her garden, and each was found to be "high in lead and cadmium at levels considered unhealthy by California state standards."

Jessica Applegate, a Southeast Portland resident who also lives near Bullseye, said she and her family were "poisoned" in their own home. "But this isn't just about Southeast Portland or my neighborhood," she said. "It's about these rules applying statewide."

Applegate said people who live in The Dalles, for example, have been struggling for decades with toxic air pollution emitted by a creosote factory in town, and "have never had the state of Oregon fighting for them." She said protecting the people of The Dalles "must be a priority."

"Simply put, we just need to know what we are breathing," she said. "We have the fundamental right to not be poisoned. We have the fundamental right to not have these industries use our lungs as their air filters."

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