Thursday, July 30, 2009

Contemplating the role of sincerity in institutional change

OK, I know that sounds more like a Tweet or a Facebook status update (which it was) than a title for an essay. I have been asked by many of you to communicate the outcome of the July 29th meeting with Dick Pedersen, Director of the Department of Environmental Quality.  The general impetus for the meeting was the dissatisfaction of neighbors with regards to DEQ's response in the wake of the USA Today Report, and a growing crisis of faith in the community of his agency to work honestly on behalf of citizens to protect us from unfettered industrial pollution. The purpose of the meeting, was a little more specific.  Mainly we want to see them do a better job of oversight at the ESCO facility, and industrial pollution sources in general; and, because of the afore-mentioned crisis of faith issue, we had some specific actions that we expect DEQ to take to achieve the desired outcome.

 To be expected, we have no clear answers on the specific requests we made, the first of which, was to ask Mr. Pedersen to view a 20 minute video that was taken at the Town Hall Meeting on May 21.  In this meeting he can see the frustrations of neighbors as they continue to ask reasonable specific questions, and get answers from his staff about process. Most of the other neighborhood requests are around obtaining a clearer picture about what ESCO does and how they might do it better (or in the case of the toxic industrial pollution: do LESS of it).  We are left once again in the position to wait and see how DEQ responds.  Clearly their's is not a track record that inspires optimism on this issue with this neighborhood.

So what is the difference?  Why the optimism today? First and foremost because I think as a neighborhood we have done an excellent job applying the pressure that is needed to enact change.  Have I reminded you lately how amazing it was to collect over 1200 signatures on the petition we circulated in little over a month? (Signatures are still coming in and keep them coming.) That when over 100 concerned citizens show up at a Town Hall Mtg ("I have been doing this for twenty years and this is the most people I have ever seen at a meeting" -Greg Lande, DEQ) it makes a difference. Do I need to tell you again that when one representative gets over 150 emails/letters about the same issue (Mitch Greenlick after the Town Hall Mtg) that he will feel compelled to do something? Clearly the difference, and the sense of optimism comes from you and your willingness to do the work we need to send the message that this is important to us.

That brings me to the meditation on sincerity. There was another dynamic at play in the meeting room yesterday. (Possibly inspired in great part by the presence, on the neighbors' behalf, of Mark Riskedahl, who, as executive director of the NEDC, has been the most effective thorn in the side of industrial polluters in this state, and whose engagement on this particular issue must inspire a vigorous accountability -if not more than a bit of fear- on the part of the DEQ staffers involved.)  But in many ways the meeting boiled down to one man: Dick Pedersen, and his sincerity to bring change to the Department of Environmental Quality that inspires public trust. 

So, while Mr. Pedersen needs to recognize that there is not a great reserve of patience for waiting and seeing how DEQ process might resolve this,  I think as a neighborhood we should extend the benefit of the doubt that his desire to be an agent of change is real, and we will take it on face value to believe him, until he proves otherwise.  The clock is ticking.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Necessary Caution

Nicholas Kristoff wrote in a recent op-ed in the NY Times: "One of the conundrums for scientists and journalists alike is how to call prudent attention to murky and uncertain risks, without sensationalizing dangers that may not exist? Increasingly, endocrinologists are concluding that the mounting evidence is enough to raise alarms." He wrote this about phthalates, noting their ubiquitous presence in modern life.  

 A related story was published the next day in The Washington Post, titled: Kids' lower IQ scores linked to prenatal pollution.  And earlier this month, I shared a story about the latest EPA Nata report that shows people living in Oregon, Multnomah County in particular, to have an increased risk of cancer due to exposure to air pollution.

 In researching this issue of industrial air pollution as I prepare testimony for the House Health Committee Workgroup on August 7th,  I came across a guiding principle of the European Union Environmental Legislation.  It's called the "Precautionary Principle." It was adopted by the EU Environmental Agency formally in 2000.  The National Institute of Environmental Health's 1998 consensus statement characterized the precautionary principle this way: "when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically". The statement went on to list four central components of the principle:

  1. taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty;
  2. shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity;
  3. exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions;
  4. and increasing public participation in decision making.

 As the European Environmental Agency said in adopting the principle: "the precautionary principle is seen principally as a way to deal with a lack of scientific certainty." In an absolutely amazing document (please pardon these banal descriptives, but, really, I think everyone should read it) entitled "Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the Precautionary Principle 1896-2000," the authors spell out how important the basic understanding of certainty, or uncertainty, is. And how that plays out in risk assessment and the regulatory and policy-making process. Twelve case studies reviewing the early warnings of such ubiquitously used, but now widely accepted known contaminants as PCBs, asbestos, benzene, and radiation, documented the at times near 100 years from the first sign of human/environmental threats to the establishment of policy to stop their use. 

 In reading this document, and its call for more weight to public participation, and a recognition of the hazards of "scientific uncertainty" being used to describe actual ignorance, I can't help but draw relevant connections between this paradigm and our neighborhood concerns at the moment.  I have been able to watch a video tape of the Town Hall Meeting we held back in May, many thanks to a concerned neighbor with a camera.  The tape demonstrates the near impossible task of our current system.  Concerned citizens gather with reasonable and specific questions about industrial pollution to address to the regulatory agency responsible for the oversight and permitting of industrial facilities.  The result is near comic, if it weren't my neighborhood, my concerns, my children.  One after another speakers ask:  Are we safe? Is there a compelling reason not to monitor? Does DEQ know what comes out of ESCO? Can we have the confidence that DEQ is protecting our health? We are looking for information. We have confirmed ESCO as the source of manganese and chromium and probably lead in the neighborhood.  Independent monitoring was able to determine that there are spikes that at times exceed benchmarks 100x the acceptable level, these spikes could be dangerous, but they would not show up on annualized averages. What is DEQ going to do?

 The answers (as quoted directly from the transcript of the Town Hall on 21 May 2009):  Compelling is an interesting word. DEQ doesn't test at the facility, ESCO contracts a third party to conduct tests.  There is hexavalent Chromium (Chrome VI-think Erin Brockovich) in the neighborhood, but we can't tell you if it is coming from ESCO or the machine shop next door. We have a lot of monitoring data calculating annualized averages of chemical toxicity-we have yet to find any concentrations to cause concern. We will have meetings. 

 This dance, which has been repeated in the neighborhood for over 10 years illustrates the imbalance in current environmental regulation and, as the authors of Late Lessons point out in their conclusion: "the urgent need for a more complete and systematic basis for thinking about the different ways in which scientific uncertainty may pervade regulatory appraisal." They go on to discuss the subjective assumptions of traditional risk assessment, and if uncertainty is allowed to mask what is truly ignorance, the effects in environmental policy can have devastating and irreversible consequences. The study provides many examples where the scope of hazard appraisal was too narrow, and the voices too few who could impact decision making.  And finally concludes: "If more account, scientifically, politically and economically, is taken of a richer body of information from more diverse sources, then society may do substantially better in the future at achieving a better balance between innovations and their hazards."

 There are many things "uncertain":  What is in the air? Where is that odor coming from? There are no safe levels for children on many of the criteria pollutants that ESCO is considered a major source of.  How much do ESCO's emissions add to our risk factor of living in the neighborhood, and the known increased risk of cancer? Of other health issues, related to neurological development, not necessarily morbidity, what are the cumulative affects of the levels of known neurotoxins such as manganese and lead on our children and ourselves?  As the conclusion of Late Lessons states: Most of the cases in the book involved costly impacts on both public health and the environment, two fields of science and policy making that have become specialized and somewhat polarized during the last 100 years.  Individuals experience their health and their environment as one, interconnected reality: science, regulatory appraisal and policy-making need to be similarly integrated.

DEQ may not in the end be the source for action we need.  But they need to quit masking ignorance as "scientific uncertainty." And they need to quit addressing reasonable public concern with arrogance and dismissive "science"- and a tactic of paralysis through analysis- that does not answer legitimate questions.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Environmental Justice and Industrial Pollution

I went to two environmental Town Hall Meetings this week.  The first, on the joint city/county Climate Action Plan in North Portland sponsored by the Urban League; and the second, sponsored by the Attorney General John Kroger to discuss his newly funded environmental crime division, along the banks of the Tualatin River in the town that bears its name.  One thing that stood out for certain is:  the environment is not an issue that attracts a diverse racial population to its meetings in this area.  As Marcus Mundy, President and CEO of the Urban League, quipped in his opening remarks and introduction of Mayor Sam Adams, he supposed by asking the Urban League to sponsor the event, the city expected a high black turn-out. Mundy went on to add that it was a good thing his family came.

But, not surprisingly, the burdens of climate change and industrial pollution fall disproportionately on the shoulders of African Americans.  According to  J. Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson who co-wrote the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, African Americans are thirteen percent of the U.S. population and on average emit nearly twenty percent less greenhouse gases than non-Hispanic whites per capita.  "Though far less responsible for climate change, African Americans are significantly more vulnerable to its effects. Health, housing, economic well-being, culture and social stability are harmed from such manifestations of climate change as storms, floods, and climate variability. African Americans are also more vulnerable to higher energy bills, unemployment, recessions caused by global energy price shocks, and a greater economic burden from military operations designed to protect the flow of oil to the U.S.

Like-wise, the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts Amherst published a report Justice In The Air, that determined "Air pollution from industrial facilities is unevenly distributed...A growing body of research has demonstrated that people of color and low-income communities often face the greatest environmental hazards. Toxic air pollution from industrial facilities is a case in point. Using the RSEI data, EPA researchers have found that nationwide, the most polluted locations have significantly higher-than-average percentages of blacks, Latinos, and Asian-American residents (Bouwes et al. 2003)."

And this seems to be true in Portland as well.  In the USA Today special report, The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America's Schools, the worst schools in Portland are all located in North Portland at the Roosevelt Campus.  

I don't have all the answers, to be sure, but a city that wants to be the "greenest in the world" should start by cleaning up its dirtiest spots. And I believe also find a way to better engage a wider portion of the population in the conversation.  This may entail facing some hard facts of the burden of responsibility for clean up in certain neighborhoods. It might also entail considering it an environmental crime to allow legal, permitted, emissions that in effect have created sacrificial zones of toxic industrial air pollution hot spots in the city.

Friday, July 3, 2009


Many of you hit on the issue of the high levels of benzene (a class A carcinogen) in our gasoline as a probable cause for Oregon's high ranking in the latest EPA report.  As was widely reported last week (well, except for in the Oregonian, but you can read about it in the USA Today) Oregon and Multnomah County specifically rank in the top geographic areas for population at risk due to toxic air pollution based on 2002 emissions data.

Oregon has nearly twice the ratio of benzene in our gasoline as the rest of the nation.  This is due to both where the fuel originates (Oregon crude oil comes from Alaska which is naturally high in benzene.  Drill, baby, drill!); and most Northwest refineries do not have the equipment to remove benzene when producing gasoline.  To remedy this situation, Senator Wyden pushed the EPA to establish a benzene cap on each refinery in the nation.  Unfortunately refiners have until 2012 to comply.  So just hold your breath for a couple more years...

For more information on this issue, read the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's fact sheet on benzene.