DEQ in the Dark


The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality admitted this week that it knows little about the toxic mercury pollution coming from a hazardous waste plant in Eastern Oregon, despite its many years of regulatory oversight. A leading member of the Oregon Legislature now says the plant's emissions could be a “very serious" threat to public health.


Aug. 28, 2018

ARLINGTON, ORE. --- A week ago, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality insisted that a hazardous waste plant in Eastern Oregon emits only "minimal" amounts of toxic air pollution. But now, the DEQ says it has no idea what the plant emits. Chemical Waste Management (ChemWaste) operates the plant, which is near Arlington in Eastern Oregon.

Although DEQ has been regulating the plant for many years, it did not start the process of finding out what is actually going on at the plant until after a rival company began voicing concerns in mid-August.

The plant is located about 50 miles east of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area about 7 miles south of the Columbia River. It is sited next to the massive Arlington landfill where most of the Portland area’s garbage is dumped.

In a statement issued last week, DEQ acknowledged its own cluelessness about the plant’s air emissions.

Questions about the plant’s air emissions first surfaced when TD*X, a ChemWaste competitor based in Texas, issued a 202-page report (here's a 2-page summary of the report) accusing its rival of emitting uncontrolled amounts of mercury vapors into the air with little or no oversight from the DEQ.

TD*X also claims DEQ regulators failed to require the plant to install effective pollution control equipment.

The TD*X report said the ChemWaste plant emits up to 2.1 tons of mercury per year.

Sen. Michael Dembrow

Mercury, a natural contaminant in fossil fuel wastes treated at the ChemWaste plant, is a potent neurotoxin that reduces intelligence in exposed populations. Mercury is a persistent, toxic pollutant that accumulates in the food chain and can eventually accumulate in fish tissue, which is the main way humans are exposed to mercury. Several of Oregon’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs currently have fish advisories because of high mercury content.

TD*X also accused the DEQ of enabling the plant to emit significant quantities of other toxics, including cadmium, lead, selenium, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, chromium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and hydrochloric acid, many of which are known to cause cancer.

In addition to petroleum waste, the plant treats a number of other highly toxic materials including pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Members of the Oregon Legislature are concerned, said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

“I’ve expressed my own concern to DEQ,” he said. “They are starting to take this very seriously. If the contentions are real this is very serious. It’s such a fragile area in terms of air quality.”

 “We’re going to need to have a high level of certainty before that permit is renewed. They should not renew that permit if they suspect there is a problem due to the mercury emissions.” -- Sen. Michael Dembrow

Sen. Dembrow noted that the plant’s air pollution permit is up for renewal in February. “We’re going to need to have a high level of certainty before that permit is renewed. They should not renew that permit if they suspect there is a problem due to the mercury emissions.”

The DEQ says it has done no testing to determine the kinds and amounts of toxic pollution emitted by the plant. Nor does DEQ plan to conduct tests on the plant’s air emissions any time soon.

For now, DEQ says it will perform what’s known as “mass balance” calculations based on data to be supplied by ChemWaste. DEQ officials expect these calculations to “indirectly confirm the presence of mercury or other toxic compounds.”

DEQ officials are also unsure of what kinds of wastes are treated at the plant, and asked ChemWaste to supply information “and is awaiting a response from the facility.”

ChemWaste says TD*X is "misinformed"

ChemWaste operates the plant under an air pollution permit issued by DEQ in 2014 that expires in February 2019. A DEQ report says the plant can to emit up to 12.27 tons of toxic compounds into the air, including many types of organic chemicals and various kinds of metals.

The TD*X report said DEQ greatly underestimates the emissions of many compounds. Interestingly, DEQ does not list mercury among the plant's likely pollutants.

But a ChemWaste spokeswoman said TD*X is misinformed about operations at Arlington, but did not cite any evidence refuting TD*X’s many allegations.

“TDX is an out-of-state corporation that has never operated in Oregon and has never been to this facility,” said Jackie Lang, a ChemWaste spokeswoman. “They are making assumptions that don’t necessarily sync up with how our system operates.”

Carl Palmer, left, a TD*X entgineer, explains at a public hearing how the ChemWaste hazardous waste plant in Eastern  Oregon pollutes the air with mercury. At right, David Anderson, a solid waste manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, takes notes. Photo by Norm Eder of CFM Strategic Communications, a Portland-based public relations firm that works for TD*X.

But Carl Palmer, a TD*X engineer, offered a compelling reason why he is familiar with ChemWaste’s operations. During the 1980s, he says he helped invent the hazardous waste incineration technology now in use at ChemWaste.

In a written statement, Lang said ChemWaste has “deep expertise to ensure environmental compliance, and we take our responsibility seriously when it comes to protecting Oregon’s air quality and the many environmental values that Oregonians hold dear. We are working with the agency to provide as much information as we can, in keeping with our commitment to open and transparent communications about our operations.”

“It’s very important for the public to understand that we are committed to full compliance, and the facility is in compliance at this time,” Lang said.

The DEQ's "lenient" regulations

DEQ allows the plant to continue to operate under a hazardous waste permit that expired in August 2016. This summer, ChemWaste asked DEQ to modify the permit to account for the installation of new hazardous waste treatment equipment. DEQ held a hearing on the permit modification on Aug. 22 and will accept comments on it until Sept. 21. 

The TD*X report accuses DEQ  of failing to require ChemWaste to follow tough regulations enacted by the US Environmental Protection Agency under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. The regulations in question involve air pollution control equipment that must be installed in plants that incinerate hazardous waste.

Palmer, the TD*X engineer, said the Arlington plant incinerates waste at a temperature of 900 degrees F, which is well above the point where mercury vaporizes. He said the plant provides no mechanism for controlling the potentially deadly vapors before being released to the atmosphere.

The RCRA regulations in question require hazardous waste incinerators to install equipment that controls pollution to the “maximum” extent possible.

The maximum pollution controls would reduce mercury emissions by 99.5 percent, Palmer said.

But officials in the DEQ’s Eastern Oregon offices have determined that the RCRA regulations do not apply to the plant because it “is not a hazardous waste incinerator," according to agency documents. Instead, DEQ chose to define the plant as a waste "recycler," which enabled it to fall under a different set of regulations which are much more lenient, a choice that benefited the company’s bottom line while harming the environment.

Every day the DEQ allows ChemWaste avoid to strict regulations, it saves the company money, helps it to attract more customers and allows it to increase toxic air emissions. -- Carl Palmer

Palmer said that every day the DEQ allows ChemWaste to avoid strict regulations, it saves the company money, helps it to attract more customers and allows it to increase toxic air emissions.

He added that no matter how you define the plant’s operations, it still emits large amounts of mercury and other metals that must be controlled to protect the public’s health.

“DEQ has based its decision to grant an exemption from strict regulatory controls and processes without looking at the waste streams going into the facility or at results from testing of air emissions,” Palmer said. “The agency has taken the applicant’s word there are minimal levels of mercury and other toxic substances in its waste streams and therefore no need for stricter air pollution controls and public oversight.” 

Palmer noted that “it should be the other way around – the applicant should provide credible proof to show DEQ what’s in its waste streams, how it is processing that material and test results for air emissions.”

The DEQ says that it could negotiate an agreement with ChemWaste to reduce the mercury emissions, if they were found to be significant. Or it says DEQ could wait to regulate the emissions until after new statewide air toxic regulations are in place next year “and run the facility through that program.”

Sen. Dembrow said he wants the DEQ to take action immediately rather than wait.

The regulations are being developed this year under Cleaner Air Oregon, DEQ’s new program to regulate toxic air emissions based on impacts to public health. The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to act on the proposed regulations in November.

A version of this article was first published in the Portland Tribune.



Submit comments to the DEQ on ChemWaste's proposed modification of its hazardous waste permit by Sept. 21. Contact David Anderson of DEQ's Hazardous Waste Program, (541) 633-2012 or by email. Although DEQ is still accepting comment on the permit, the agency has already removed a link to it from its public notices page

Submit comments to the DEQ on the renewal of ChemWaste's hazardous waste permit when it comes up for renewal in December. Contact Linda Hayes-Gorman, administrator of DEQ's Eastern Region, 541-633-2018 or byemail

Submit comments to the DEQ on the renewal of ChemWaste's air pollution permit when it comes up for renewal in February 2019.Contact Linda Hayes-Gorman, administrator of DEQ's Eastern Region, 541-633-2018 or by email

Paul Koberstein