Cleaner Air Oregon Takes Its First Breath
Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission takes action to curb toxic air pollution emitted by industry. Oregon becomes the 25th state to regulate industrial fumes that cause cancer and other serious diseases.
By PAUL KOBERSTEIN
PORTLAND, OR— The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) on Thursday unanimously approved new rules to protect people who live and work near industrial polluters.
With the passage of Cleaner Air Oregon, EQC closed a loophole in Oregon’s air pollution law that let industry emit deadly amounts of toxic pollution with impunity. Gov. Kate Brown initiated Cleaner Air Oregon in April 2016 after newspaper reports revealed toxic emissions from Bullseye Glass poisoned its neighbors in Southeast Portland.
Later news reports revealed that other companies in Oregon were also endangering public health, including Entek in Lebanon, Precision Castparts in Milwaukie, Owens-Brockaway in Cully, American Petroleum Environmental Services and Oil Re-Refining Co. in North Portland, and AmeriTies West in The Dalles.
Officials at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said they knew about the state’s unregulated toxic pollution, but said existing law gave them no authority to do anything about it. Cleaner Air Oregon now gives them that power.
While all five members of the EQC voted in favor of Cleaner Air Oregon, two members expressed reservations.
“I’m not convinced that we know it’s the right program,” said Greg Addington of Klamath Falls, the EQC’s newest member. “I have reservations about it and those include financial impact on business. I don’t want to see regulation for the sake of regulation.”
Commissioner Wade Mosby of Roseburg urged the DEQ to “use good discretion” when contemplating enforcement action against industrial polluters.
“In a small community, if you shut down the biggest facility they’ve got, you’ve got poverty,” he said. “Those are the people who are going to have poor health one way or another.”
Nevertheless, both Mosby and Addington voted yes, joining fellow commissioners Kathleen George, Sam Barrasso and Molly Kyle.
“It took two-and-a-half-years to put this in front of us,” said Commissioner Barrasso, a senior policy analyst in Multnomah County's Office of Sustainability. “That is no small feat.”
“Today’s vote marks the most significant step towards ensuring Oregonian’s right to clean air in 30 years,” said Governor Brown. “We reached this milestone by working together in partnership and with an unwavering commitment to protecting the health of Oregonians. We delivered a program that breaks new ground in protecting the air we breathe. There is more work to be done, and together we can work towards cleaner air in Oregon.”
In addition to closing gaps in existing air quality rules, Cleaner Air Oregon rules will provide the public greater access to air toxics emissions data. Next year, the DEQ will launch a pilot project in Portland that will attempt to regulate the multiple types of toxic pollution emitted by multiple facilities in a single neighborhood.
Keith Johnson, special advisor to DEQ Director Richard Whitman for the Cleaner Air Oregon program, said Oregon joins 24 states that also regulate industrial air toxic pollution. He said none of these states address the cumulative impact of multiple pollution sources, as the pilot program would do.
“Today is a good day for Oregon. This was a long public process that involved community groups, industry, health experts and many concerned Oregonians,” Commission Chair George said. “I commend the effort by DEQ and OHA to deliver an unprecedented level of community engagement to ensure we are implementing a program that protects Oregon’s communities.”
While Cleaner Air Oregon is seen as a step in the right direction, there is no guarantee that it will prevent industrial polluters from harming anyone’s health. The regulations approved by the EQC are likely to reduce — but not eliminate — health problems. As currently written, many critics believe the rules set emission limits that are too high and must be lowered to protect vulnerable populations.
For example, the rules will still enable a polluter to cause elevated rates of cancer and respiratory disease, just not as much as before the rules were enacted. In the future, members of the public have said they will ask the EQC to tighten pollution standards further.
Cleaner Air Oregon does not address air pollution caused by wood smoke and diesel engines.