Monday, May 3, 2010

Why the Air Toxics Benchmarks Matter

For months, we have been asking people to care about the Air Toxics Benchmarks, specifically the new stricter standard being proposed for manganese. It would be pretty easy to accept that the state is addressing our concerns about industrial Air Toxics as they consider lowering the manganese benchmark to match the current California standard.  Since last year when I stumbled on the report that showed 35 Portland schools, including my daughters', to be in some of the worst industrial toxic hot spots in the nation, I have been routinely directed to the Department of Environmental Quality's program:  Portland Air Toxics Solutions (PATS).  Last summer I became one of the over 30 members of the PATS Advisory Committee.  It has been through this process, the first meeting in August 2009, and the 2nd just held in April 2010, that I have come to better understand the importance of the Air Toxics Benchmarks.  And to realize it is incredibly important that citizens pay attention, especially those of us who are concerned about the high levels of these specific pollutants, like manganese, which we discovered through USA Today's national report on industrial pollution.

The Air Toxics Benchmarks will be the metric that the state agency uses to measure reductions in toxic air pollution.  

The problem is, that these benchmarks are measured in terms of the annualized averages of the ambient levels detected (or most likely modeled) over the tri-county area.

And this new stricter manganese benchmark will not require any emissions reduction efforts for those facilities emitting the neurotoxin in the toxic hot spots in the city, Northwest and North Portland, where, according to DEQ data, manganese was both modeled and monitored at the highest levels in the tri-county area.  And, most notably, 2008 fenceline monitoring data of the ESCO facility revealed that the manganese levels in the air emissions from the NW steel refinery were sometimes 300 times the benchmarks.  At least that is what I infer from the comments by DEQ and ESCO staff who both assert that "we are already in attainment" of this new stricter benchmark.

That is why I drove the nearly 450 mile round trip to deliver the message to the Environmental Quality Commission in person at their meeting last week in Coos Bay.  I showed up to address Agenda Item M, on the Air Toxics Benchmark Rulemaking, which was thankfully removed by DEQ Director Dick Pedersen to allow for more public input.  Because, we need to insist that the EQC consider adopting dual standards to address not only the long term health risks, but the short term risks of high exposures experienced in the toxic hot spots, as well as the more protective levels that are needed to safeguard the most vulnerable to these high spikes, like our children.  My concern is, without the qualification that these current ABC's do not address the risk of the most vulnerable to short term exposures, these benchmarks will be used as a false pretense of public health safety by the sources of these air toxics.  In other words, major sources of manganese, lead and other types of toxic air pollution will go back to saying "we are doing no harm," even if the science says that there are no safe levels for children.

I urge everyone to sign the petition to ask the EQC to ensure that the Air Toxic Health Benchmarks protect children from short term and long term exposure to toxic pollutants present in the environment where they live, play and go to school.  Click here to sign online.  Let's deliver the message at the May 18th public hearing, or before the June 30th public comment period closes.

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