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.