EDITORIAL: PASS SENATE BILL 1541

By PAUL KOBERSTEIN

Sometime this weekend, maybe even as early as Friday, the Oregon Legislature will vote on Senate Bill 1541 – legislation that for the first time will enact legal restrictions on the toxic pollution that permeates much of Oregon’s air.

The Legislature should pass this bill.

SB 1541 is not perfect. It has the fingerprints of polluters all over it.

The problem is for much too long, Oregon’s polluters have evaded the state’s pathetic efforts at stopping their toxic emissions. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality can’t even say for sure what those emissions are.

Under current law, polluters self-report their emissions. The DEQ plugs their iffy numbers into a computer, and gets who knows what. There’s hardly any monitoring to fact check the data the polluters are reporting.

SB 1541 would fix that. It sets up a science-based ambient air monitoring system that monitors the air near polluting factories. The program will be run by DEQ and funded by polluters themselves.

Our current air toxics regulatory system allows polluters like Bullseye Glass to send toxic clouds of cadmium, arsenic and hexavalent chromium over unsuspecting residential neighborhoods located nearby, causing potentially signficant damage to the health of people living, working or going to school nearby.

If properly designed, the system will help catch other Bullseyes that might be out there.

More than two years ago, a US Forest Service science experiment using moss helped the DEQ come to the conclusion that Bullseye’s emissions posed a grave danger to people in Southeast Portland. The DEQ forced Bullseye to install air pollution devices that should have been in place long ago. Today, Bullseye’s neighbors have access to air that some say is as much as 98 percent cleaner than before.

As the Bullseye fiasco was unfolding, Gov. Kate Brown proposed a program with the goal of giving all Oregonians the same access to cleaner air that residents that Bullseye’s neighbors now enjoy. Sadly, the program, known as Cleaner Air Oregon, will die without funding.

SB 1541 coughs up the money. There’s no other source of funds.

Cleaner Air Oregon was finally born last fall after a year of meetings held by a governor-appointed rules advisory committee. But in recent weeks, a handful of industry lobbyists collaborated with Sen. Fred Girod, a Republican from Stayton, to write a bill tossing Cleaner Air Oregon into the gutter.

But thanks to the hard work of a handful of four Democrats, senators Michael Dembrow, Lew Frederick and representatives Karin Power and Rob Nosse, the bill that the Legislature will vote on this weekend SB 1541 is far better than the one originally drafted by the polluters’ lobbyists. If passed, it would give air toxic regulators at the DEQ some of the money and monitoring they will need to start regulating air toxics.

Why is monitoring so important? Mary Peveto of Neighbors for Clean Air nails it:

“My feeling is a community armed with better data and information is more powerful than anything I’ve seen regulators do in the last decade,” she said.

As we said, the bill is not perfect. It gives existing polluters 10 years to get their act together while giving the DEQ no authority to close down anyone other than the most egregious polluters until that 10-year grace period is up.

The DEQ will probably need the 10 years before it can get the monitoring program up and running where it needs to be.

New businesses would have to meet far tougher standards as soon as they begin operating.

We would prefer that the Legislature simply fund Cleaner Air Oregon as proposed by the rules advisory committee. But we have been assured by legislators from both sides of the aisle that the votes are not there, and without votes there is no money.

SB 1541 will also pay for 11 new employees at the DEQ and the Oregon Health Authority to run the program.

You will hear claims that SB 1541 will allow industry to emit enough pollution to cause 200 extra cancers per million people. But that number is not well understood. It refers to the number cancers projected to develop after 70 years of exposure to toxic chemicals. Moreover, the law allows the DEQ to clamp down on carcinogenic emissions after just 10 years.

Under current law there air no health standards for air toxic emissions. That means polluters are permitted to cause an almost unlimited number of cancers. That’s unacceptable.

SB 1541 sets Oregon’s first ever heslth-baded air toxic standards that take effect in 2029. These new standards are much tougher than the the law in effect right now.

We think SB 1541 is a reasonable compromise. And did we mention that polluters will pay for the program?

Two years ago, we wrote that, “On a hazy summer day, sometimes you can see toxic substances in Portland’s air. In some neighborhoods throughout the year, you can smell them.” We reported data showing that dangerous levels of carcinogenic chemicals contaminate every part of the city.

That’s what business as usual looks like. That’s what Portland looks like. The Legislature can start changing that by passing SB 1541.

Paul Koberstein