Monday, April 19, 2010

How bad is the air in Portland?

I have been on a journey of discovery into Portland air quality since March 2009. That was when I ran across a national study that showed my daughters' elementary school to be in the top 2% of schools across the nation with the worst air due to proximity to toxic industrial emissions (USA Today: The Smokestack Effect). To make matters worse, in July 2009, the federal government published its most recent National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) report that showed Oregon to have the 3rd largest population at risk of excess cancer due to exposure to toxic emissions.  My latest stop this week, a website introduced through TEDMED 2009 speaker Bill Davenhall, ERSI Global Marketing Manager, that gives users a way to assess health risks through geography.

By inputing zip codes into the search engine a visitor to the site can get a picture of their place history and the environmental exposures associated with them. I have lived many places in my adult life, and I also threw in a few zip codes from my husband's side which hails from SE Texas to SW Louisiana (otherwise known as cancer alley).  Finally I threw in the zip code for Marietta OH where a school was closed because of the local industrial emissions. Here are some of what I found:

Milwaukee, WI:  14 chemicals
Baltimore, MD: 4 chemicals
Santa Cruz, CA: 8 chemicals
St. Paul, MN: 21 chemicals
Marietta, OH: 24 chemical
Houston, TX: 7 chemicals
Lake Charles, LA: 10 chemicals

And finally, Portland OR: 82 chemicals

82 chemicals.  Portland's progressiveness seems to expand beyond bike paths, light rail, and the streetcar.

It has been documented that city living in and of itself is a health risk.  I am a strong believer in our urban growth boundary and even in the theory of "20 min. communities." But are these pillars of progressive land use planning sustainable in an environment that still allows unfettered capitulation of natural resources by industrial entities?

Portland's contemporary dilemma is nothing new.  Even in 1913, as the ESCO Corporation was part of the movement to fill in Guild's Lake, and appropriate the NW expanse along the deep water Willamette River for industrial use, other city leaders were battling to realize the promise of the 1907 million dollar municipal park bond measure, and attempting to save the west hills forest from development.

It is hard to say which more suited the values of the family who built the house in 1904 where my family currently lives on lower Thurman Street.  Their parents concurrently built the house next door and a four plex right behind those.  I suspect they were middle class, workers who were benefitting from the jobs close by.  I also suspect they enjoyed the pristine forests nearby, though had no guarantee they would remain.  I do know that they could have no idea what dangers lurked ahead as industrial activity boomed.  There is very little science today to help us understand how these chemicals effect us, and almost none regarding the synergistic effects of 82 of them.

On the eve of the 2nd Portland Air Toxics Solution Advisory Committee meeting, I think it is time for our Environmental Quality Commission to address the unique problems of Portland's air pollution by ensuring that the Air Toxics benchmarks are truly protective of public health.  The current benchmarks are incapable of addressing the exposures of those most at risk, like children, and those who live in toxic hotspots, exposed to all 82 toxic chemicals and heavy metals.  You can send a message to the DEQ that specifically asks the EQC to ensure that the Air Toxic Health Benchmarks protect children from short term and long term exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment where they live, play and go to school.

Public Comment closes June 30th on the Air Toxics Benchmark ruling, and there will be a public hearing May 18th.  I urge you to make your voice heard that we expect out regulatory process to be protective of public health.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The public meeting the public wasn't invited to.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has often taken the chance to sing the praises of citizens who are actively engaged in the effort to advocate for cleaner air. Just this past week, the NW Examiner's April edition came out with a letter from Andy Ginsburg praising Paul Koberstein's interest in air quality and the health of residents of the northwest neighborhood. Of course, he was also trying to take back statements he made on record about the effect of industrial pollution, but that's for another blog.

You can imagine the surprise when I learned today that the DEQ held a public hearing in our neighborhood, at the Friendly House on March 30th, to review the Rule change regarding Air Toxics Benchmarks. You can view the public notice here.

Specifically, the notice states: DEQ [plans] to update air quality ambient benchmark concentrations for Ethyl Benzene, Lead, Manganese and Mercury.

Many of you may recall our effort last Fall that sent more than 700 postcards to the Governor's desk to address the concerns about the manganese benchmark. Then in December 2009, some of you showed up at, and provided testimony at, the actual Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee meeting where these benchmarks were discussed. So it is reasonable to assume that if the agency felt it necessary, or even if law dictates, holding a public hearing to finalize this, that some in our neighborhood would be counted among the public that would participate.

But we never received the notification of this public hearing on the Manganese and other benchmarks. I contacted others active on this issue and not one had heard of this public hearing.

I would have assumed, if the agency was sincere in their interest to have the public participate, I could have been notified about this meeting either from any of the many Air Quality and Northwest Region DEQ staff with which I have had regular contact over the last 12 months, or through my role on the Portland Air Toxics Solutions Advisory Committee, or by whatever means it was advertised publically, or finally, as a subscriber to any one of the five DEQ online updates I have signed up for and from which I regularly receive information. As it stands, Nina DeConcini, NWR administrator for DEQ told me in a very contritely worded email, that "The update to the air quality ambient benchmark concentrations for Ethyl Benzene, Lead, Manganese and Mercury is currently slated to go the Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) at the end of this month for their consideration. We are open to reopening the public comment period and having more hearings, but this would delay the EQC's action by at least two months."

This issue of conscientiously including citizen involvement in the regulatory process causing delay is beginning to sound very familiar, and frankly, feel like blackmail. We are already suffering through a two year delay on the renewal of the ESCO permit because somehow a robust and thorough process did not fit into the usual calendar. Maybe it is time for the agency to reconsider how it currently accounts for citizen engagement in its process.

I think the omission of any meaningful communication from the agency to the neighborhood for this public hearing, illustrates the vacuity of the agency's effort at public engagement. This is either a demonstration of gross negligence or malfeasance. Either way, it underscores the tremendous uphill battle of keeping an engaged and informed public participating in the process when the agency affords it.