DEQ draft rules grapple with toxic air pollution

DEQ officials say the program attempts to inventory all toxic emissions in the state and rein them in

By PAUL KOBERSTEIN

By now, many Portlanders have grown accustomed to the fact that their air can make them sick. Toxic air pollution has been an unhappy part of Portlanders' lives for decades, but the state's environmental agency has only started to seriously address much of the problem.

State and federal laws tightly regulate types of air pollution that cause smog and respiratory problems, such as ground-level ozone and particulate matter. But another category of pollutants that causes a wide range of diseases, including cancer, remains largely unregulated. Common air toxics include the carcinogens arsenic and hexavalent chromium.

To fill the gap, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality last week introduced a slate of proposed regulations, known collectively as Cleaner Air Oregon, that would attempt to curb toxic emissions from industrial sources. The rules as drafted do not address the significant amount of toxic air pollution emitted by diesel engines that saturates the airshed. But DEQ officials say the program attempts to inventory all toxic emissions in the state and rein them in.

It's a start, says DEQ director Richard Whitman.

"The draft Cleaner Air Oregon framework brings us a step nearer to closing the regulatory gaps that can expose Oregonians to harmful levels of industrial air toxics," Whitman said.

The draft would regulate the overall air that people breathe, instead of the current practice of setting limits on the amount of toxic pollution that each business can emit. The volunteer Oregon Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to take final action on the rules next year.

New health-based approach

The rules provide that if the DEQ finds that the cumulative emissions of several polluters in an area pose an unacceptable risk to public health, it must look for ways to reduce the pollution to a healthier level.

Few people deny Oregon needs to find a new approach to toxic air pollution. National studies of air pollution by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggest Portland's air is among the most dangerous in the country. Among the nation's 3,000 counties, Multnomah County's air ranks No. 1 in its ability to cause respiratory disease, and in the top 1 percent in its potential to cause cancer, according to the EPA's National Air Toxics Assessment released in December 2015.

As the Tribune reported in March 2016, the EPA study shows that the air in some of Portland's neighborhoods is even worse. In areas near the city center, the air is so bad that it ranks in the top 0.1 percent nationally for its potential to cause cancer.

This has been an embarassment for a city that takes pride in its sustainable lifestyle.

The DEQ says that Oregon lags behind Washington, California and numerous other states that already have regulations controlling toxic air emissions based on health concerns. The agency also says that the cumulative risk limits in the rules would put Oregon ahead of most other states. The DEQ introduced the draft rules at the final meeting last week of a 20-member rules advisory committee that Gov. Kate Brown appointed in April 2016.

The rules make clear that they were designed to benefit people who breathe toxic pollution emitted by multiple industrial sources. Consider the example of Julie Reardon, a resident of the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood in Southeast Portland, whose family lives within a mile of two Precision Castparts plants as well as a dozen other industrial polluters. Individually, Reardon said, none of the polluters appear to exceed emission thresholds specified in existing rules, but she believes that collectively their emissions pose a serious health risk to her and her family. However, she said, it's not clear whether the proposed rules would bring any improvements to the air.

"You were given a task to write new rules to protect public health and you are failing," she said in testimony before the advisory committee. "These draft rules do not go far enough to safeguard the health of the environmental justice communities risking their lives by doing no more than living in a neighborhood they can barely afford. There is a lot of damage that industry and regulators need to make up for."

For a long time, many parts of Portland have suffered from the unhealthy effects of air toxics. But the issue came to the forefront only last year, when a U.S. Forest Service study using moss to measure air pollutants revealed that Southeast and North Portland residents near two art glass manufacturers had been breathing dangerous levels of toxics such as arsenic and cadmium. The DEQ ordered the suspected source of some of this pollution, Bullseye Glass, to immediately install air pollution control equipment, which cost more than $1 million. The other offender, Uroboros, decided to close its plant and move it to Mexico.

Bullesye's new equipment has been in place for about a year, and some neighbors say they are noticing the air is improved. Jessica Applegate, a member of the advisory committee who lives about a mile from Bullseye, said she is hearing "birds and crickets" in her backyard for the first time.

Small business financing needed

DEQ fears the new Cleaner Air Oregon rules may pose a financial hardship for the roughly 1,000 small businesses who might need to install pollution control equipment in order to meet the programs goals. It is looking for ways to reduce that hardship, possibly through a loan program.

Al Hooten, a member of the rules advisory committee and the owner of Glass Alchemy Ltd., an art glass company based in North Portland, said a low-interest loan program wouldn't cost taxpayers anything and would help small businesses clean up their emissions.

"We agree on the ultimate goals," he said. "This process might not be perfect, but we are setting a precedent."

The DEQ defines small businesses as companies with fewer than 50 employees, a group that includes the two North Portland used-oil refiners whose air pollution has been linked to horrific odors and ill health, American Petroleum Environmental Services and Oil Re-Refining Co.

"Small companies can create big toxics," said Mary Lou Putman, a Hayden Island resident who lives near the two plants.

The path toward developing the rules was blocked this summer when the Oregon Legislature, under heavy lobbying by industry groups, rejected the DEQ's request for $1.1 million to create the Cleaner Air Oregon program. The DEQ nevertheless found a way to finish the job without the extra money, although without it, agency officials said they had no money for such things as studies on fiscal impacts on small business. Ironically, industry leaders cited the DEQ's failure to conduct a rigorous fiscal analysis of those potential impacts in their criticism of the Cleaner Air Oregon regulations.

The DEQ expects to obtain future funding for the program from both the Legislature and the polluters.

Other criticism came from Ellen Porter, a committee member who is director of environmental affairs for Roseburg, a forest products company based in that Southern Oregon city. She sees the issue as "Portland vs. rural Oregon" and questioned whether the rules should apply to each part of the state equally.

"This is quite Portland-centric," Porter said. "I don't think you've reached out to rural Oregon. Applying such a rule to solve Portland's problems is going to create other problems for rural Oregon. We don't have the capacity to support those who are going to lose their jobs over this."

Applegate said urban and rural residents need clean air equally. "My heart goes out to rural Oregon," she said. "My family has long roots in Oregon. I come from rural Oregon, I farm in rural Oregon. This isn't rural or urban. That's a myth."

Paul Koberstein