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.

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