Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Good Neighbor Agreement

Many of you were in the room last May, at the public hearing on the statewide air toxics benchmarks, when Vice-Chair Williamson, of the state's Environmental Quality Commission, advised citizens that the most effective means of fighting a large local source of pollution was a "Good Neighbor Agreement."

My husband remarked that Williamson was just being honest, offering the kind of advice that your friendly college advisor might to help you deal with a particularly onerous prof threatening to fail you.

But Williamson isn't just a wizened observer.  He is vice-chair of the state's rule-making body for the Department of Environmental Quality. He can, and in fact should, see that if the state environmental regulations are ineffective in protecting public health, he and the others serving on the EQC have a mandate to change that. 

And, his advice falls flat for another reason, despite his statement GNA's are neighbor's "best" option, there are few, if any, success stories in Oregon.  So how is it that the state tells us our best recourse is one that has yet to prove itself attainable?

We are well on our way to a GNA with ESCO, I believe.  Without a formal legal contract between neighbors and the company (which is rare with GNA's in any case), many of the tenants of a GNA are being met:  meetings which bring neighbor representatives concerns into the internal discussion regarding pollution mitigation and increased transparency in discussing options and sharing information. With the first draft of ESCO's alternatives analysis on the table, the community is getting its best shot in years to consider what might be possible in the effort to reduce emissions.

The problem is that ESCO is just one of the 19 Title V permitted facilities in the city, one of hundreds of industrial air polluters, including 7 other steel processing facilities and 8 petroleum companies. According to a study published by USA Today, nearly all of our neighborhoods are affected by large sources of toxic air pollution, ranking 233 of Portland's 250 school in the bottom third of the nation due to exposure to dangerous industrial air toxics. There has to be a better way.  Sustaining the citizen involvement necessary for these efforts takes tremendous amount of resources to balance the scale of the financial means of those who will fight any type of pollution reduction effort at every turn.

I stumbled across an interesting third way, that is something other than direct citizen negotiation and dreaming for the time when stringent environmental regulations are enacted and enforced. In July 2008, the then outgoing mayor of Houston TX, sick of decades of inadequate environmental regulation that failed to stem the poisonous tide of air pollution in his city, took matters into his own hands.

In an essay written for the Texas Law Review, Ryan Hackney argues that Houston Mayor Bill White effectively substantiates his authority when he enacted an ordinance that gave the City of Houston broad powers to register and inspect polluting facilities within the City.  Hackney says: "local government may be the level of government that can address air pollution problems most effectively. When a state agency fails to take sufficient action to protect local populations from air pollution, the local government may be the only entity that can take effective action."

I am not advocating yet that our city take over the regulatory authority of large industrial polluters, or do what Houston's Mayor did in enacting a parallel matrix of permits, but I think there is a tremendous amount of room for the city to take a more active role in direct discussions with industry and their representatives to move pollution mitigation efforts beyond the current regulatory framework.  The city can exert influence in building permits, zoning, transportation infrastructure decisions, to ensure that equitable pollution reduction efforts are realized across the city.  In the interest of ensuring equitable livability standards for all residents, the city, could ask that air pollution sources be required to do environmental health impact analysis and monitoring so that citizen' right to know is protected, and everyone can understand what the local impact might be from the regulated sources of  air pollution in our city. Finally, the city can be part of enforcing nuisance ordinances and emergency response preparation, two areas where specifically the state fails to adequately provide timely and effective responses to upsets involving air polluters.

Air pollution problems are inherently local, the worst of them manifesting in "Toxic Hot Spots." Yet this is specifically the area where the Clean Air Act and the state regulatory framework has failed to protect citizens.  Ozone and smog are primarily the problems of cities, where sufficient concentrations of vehicles and industry can emit enough oxides of nitrogen (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to create hazardous conditions. Likewise, toxic emissions are primarily an urban problem where industrial operations and residential populations exist in close proximity. Health experts are devoting increasing attention to the issue of toxic hot spots - highly localized areas of acute or prolonged toxic exposure. A January 2007 study by the University of Texas Health Science Center found a 56% elevated risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia among children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel.

Thanks to the hard work of citizen action groups like Environmental Working GroupCenter for Health, Environmental and Justice, and Earth Justice, I am heartened to see new vigor brought to the federal debate around toxics and better enforcement of the the Clean Air Act after eight stagnant years under Bush. It seems that this should be accompanied with an honest discussion of preempting some of the state's authority, where it is so failing its mandate to protect public health, and transferring it into the hands of those closer to the problems.    If direct citizen negotiation is still considered the most effective means of addressing local toxic hot spots, citizens need stronger public advocates to work on their behalf. Portland should look to the spirit of what the Houston Mayor did, which was to say, the city is the best entity to look out for the equitable protection of all its citizens and should be creative in its ideas of how to engage on the issue.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

False Choices

The first responders to The Oregonian coverage of Neighbors for Clean Air delivering air toxics petition to DEQ downtown yesterday, gave the usual doomsday speech of pollution reduction equals job destruction.

This age old argument to protect the status quo just doesn't stack up.  In "free market" America, companies shed jobs and move to other countries because of the economy, not environmental protection demands.  According to a September 2009 article in The Oregonian The Ash Grove Cement Kiln in Durkee, Oregon reduced production not because of long overdue threats to limit the toxic mercury emissions from one of the largest sources in the nation, but because global demand for asphalt has dropped significantly during the course of the great recession.

But in Europe, they seem to be able to choose both the environment and jobs.  In a fascinating March 2010 essay published in Harper's Magazine on Germany's labor structure, Thomas Geoghegan notes: "a strange fact: since 2003, it’s not China but Germany, that colossus of European socialism, that has either led the world in export sales or at least been tied for first. Even as we in the United States fall more deeply into the clutches of our foreign creditors—China foremost among them—Germany has somehow managed to create a high-wage, unionized economy without shipping all its jobs abroad or creating a massive trade deficit, or any trade deficit at all." Or, BP-scale environmental destruction. Maybe America is Europe's China--companies come over here to get away with what they can't on their own soil.

It is universally recognized that Germany, and the European Environmental Council, in adopting the Precautionary Principle nearly a decade ago, also get environmental regulation right:  Polluters need to prove they do no harm before they are allowed to impose their toxic outputs into our lives.  We have the opportunity to de-incentify cheap environmentally destructive business models.  We can enact things like "polluter pays" regulations being supported by our own Earl Blumenauer.  We can enact what I would like to say is the "Common Sense" principle.  We know things like heavy metals are dangerous to our health, and devastating to our children's development, and they will most likely cause irreparable damage that may not be seen for decades, and we know the sources of these emissions.  Let's stop it. 

In response to our demands, Andy Ginsburg has said the state will begin to look at addressing short-term benchmarks for air toxics.  The work won't even begin until mid-2011.  It has taken the state 10 years to drag itself to this point.  This does not have to be this way.  The Clean Air Act already affords the state the discretion it needs to safeguard public health by more stringent emissions controls and pollution reduction policy. It can write rules today about known heavy metal toxins they measured years ago from identified sources. The state agency can put public health above the needs of the regulated community.

Let's do it. Today.

Monday, June 28, 2010

EPA report confirms: Portland's air is Toxic

The Sunday New York Times reported that EPA's inspector general said the agency is ten years behind schedule in setting guidelines for a host of air toxic benchmarks. Even more damning, the "agency had not met targets outlined in a 1999 planning document, the Integrated Urban Air Toxics Strategy, including tracking urban dwellers' risk of developing health problems from exposure to pollutants.

Frank O'Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group based in Washington, said the inspector general's report made clear that 'the issue of breathing cancer-causing chemicals in city air is something of an orphan issue.' For example, the agency's last assessment of the risk of toxic air pollutants is based on emissions data from 2002. That analysis found that 1 in 28,000 people, or 36 in 1 million, could develop cancer from lifetime exposure to air toxics from outdoor sources. That number is an average, however, and people living in densely populated cities may face a higher risk."

The people most exposed, Mr. O'Donnell said, 'are probably not out in the wheat farms - they're going to be people living near where the bus depots are.'"

As Paul Koberstein has noted, Mr. O'Donnell is referring to communities like ours, situated in Portland's toxic hot spots. In fact, Koberstein notes that in Portland we are at 1 excess cancer in 12,000 people or 79 in a million, so we are just more than double the national average.

This just underscores how on track we are to be pressuring the DEQ to address the health risks of air toxics, specifically our children and other vulnerable populations who live, work, play and go to school in Portland's toxic hot spots.

Many of us have experienced the frustration in addressing our concerns to DEQ about the health effects of the toxic emissions from regulated polluters. Over 500 people have signed the petition online and on paper, because every meeting has been the same: complaints of odors, confusing data, and inaction from the agency. That is why our group has elected to take our concerns downtown and deliver the petition in person, to remind DEQ that citizen's expect our health to be put above the needs of polluters.  I hope you will join us Wednesday to deliver the message:

What's in our air? Rally
DEQ Headquarters -- 811 SW 6th Avenue, 1 block south of Pioneer Courthouse Square
blue sky NCA logoWe will meet for a photo in front of the building @ 4:30.
Then a group (whoever would like) can proceed inside DEQ before the 5pm deadline for public comment closes on the current air toxics benchmark rulemaking.

For more information about our Wednesday event and to RSVP please visit the 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Doing my homework

At the end of the last Portland Air Toxics Solution (PATS) Advisory Committee meeting, a woman who had waited patiently in the visitors gallery through the 6 –hr meeting, stood up to address the room.  The public is allowed to attend the meetings, but speaking and asking questions for anyone other than committee members is restricted.  She must have felt strongly about what she wanted to say.

She introduced herself as Kate McCutcheon, the environmental manager at Blue Heron Paper.  The Oregon City company has a mixed record of environmental compliance, incurring fines in the last 10-15 years for air and water infractions.

While Ms. McCutcheon was addressing the room, I did get the strange feeling she was directing her comments at me. Making eye contact, she said, “any one who questions the air toxic benchmarks hasn’t done their homework.”

The air toxic benchmarks or ABC’s (ambient benchmark concentrations) are the metrics introduced by DEQ as the framework that PATS will be utilizing to measure air toxic reductions.  Since most if not all of the air toxics being discussed exceed the benchmarks, it is reasonable to assume that getting them below those benchmark levels will mean a reduction of toxic air pollution in the metro air shed.

But it does not necessarily mean that the air quality will be safe, or vulnerable populations within the metro air shed, like our children, will be safeguarded from adverse health effects due to exposure to toxic air pollution.  This is because the ABCs are annualized average concentrations of air toxics that do not reflect the risk of exposure to spikes and toxic hot spots, like those people who live near large industrial sources of toxic emissions or in low income housing along freeway corridors. And as individual concentrations they do not address the synergistic effect of these toxics are when mixed together.

Unfortunately, Ms. McCutcheon, I have done my homework.  And this leads me to realize that the benchmarks will not address what I, and hundreds of parents have come to realize about the dangers lurking in the Portland air: industrial pollution contaminates the airshed of every school in the Portland area, every one –except one- of which ranks in the nation’s worst 30% of schools at risk.  In fact, 65 schools rank among the worst 10% in the nation due to proximity to large sources of toxic air pollution.  The worst of these schools, including seven in Northwest Portland and three campuses in North Portland, list manganese as the air toxic of most concern.  Yet we are told that the Portland area and the polluters that emit this neurotoxin are already in attainment of the newer stricter manganese benchmark.

And I am not the only one to have done the homework assignment.  Over 40 concerned citizens who recently attended the Air Toxics Benchmark Hearing on May 18th  came to address the same concerns: do these benchmarks adequately safeguard public health from the hazards of air toxics, especially spikes in emissions that at times have been recorded in fenceline monitoring to exceed the benchmark by 300x, yet would not be reflected in an annualized average.

At the same hearing, Commissioner Williamson said what most have come to suspect:  “when it comes to large sources of industrial pollution, the best remedy has been direct negotiation between neighbors and the company through a good neighbor agreement.” In other words, the state won’t help you, you are on your own to address the issue of spikes and toxic hot spots. He unfortunately offered no insight as to how a community gets leverage against industry, which has the backing of well-funded powerful lobbyists, and which operates within a state regulatory framework that has allowed the proliferation of sacrificial zones of toxic hot spots, by adopting metrics and calculations that ensure compliance of permitted air emissions limits by relegating them unenforceable.

While I acknowledge that there is a solid body of science behind the benchmarks, the problem was in the question, not the answer.  The Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee (ATSAC) was not asked to determine what is the safe level of the neurotoxin manganese exposure to children, which as scientists Dr. Brodsky (OHSU), Dr. Carmen (Texas Air Commission, and Lone Star Sierra Club), and Maye Thompson, PhD (Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility) would say is zero to minimal.  Instead they were only asked if the science supported the reduction from current benchmark to the lower one. 

We need to reframe the question.  What health metric can be used to inform the regulatory process?  Anything that maintains the status quo is not genuine, and threatens to provide a false pretense to the regulated community that they are compliant and do no harm.  The status quo says that almost every Portland school is at danger due to toxic air pollution.  The status quo says that Multnomah county, and Oregon, lead the nation in excess rates of cancer due to toxic air pollution.  Nobody should be allowed to put dangerous air toxics in our common domain, and claim that they are not part of the problem.

This Thursday, June 3rd is the next meeting of the PATS advisory committee.  DEQ has scheduled three hours to discuss the benchmarks.  Ms. McCutcheon can be assured that I, and others, will have questions.