Showing posts with label right to know. Show all posts
Showing posts with label right to know. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Good Neighbor Agreement

Many of you were in the room last May, at the public hearing on the statewide air toxics benchmarks, when Vice-Chair Williamson, of the state's Environmental Quality Commission, advised citizens that the most effective means of fighting a large local source of pollution was a "Good Neighbor Agreement."

My husband remarked that Williamson was just being honest, offering the kind of advice that your friendly college advisor might to help you deal with a particularly onerous prof threatening to fail you.

But Williamson isn't just a wizened observer.  He is vice-chair of the state's rule-making body for the Department of Environmental Quality. He can, and in fact should, see that if the state environmental regulations are ineffective in protecting public health, he and the others serving on the EQC have a mandate to change that. 

And, his advice falls flat for another reason, despite his statement GNA's are neighbor's "best" option, there are few, if any, success stories in Oregon.  So how is it that the state tells us our best recourse is one that has yet to prove itself attainable?

We are well on our way to a GNA with ESCO, I believe.  Without a formal legal contract between neighbors and the company (which is rare with GNA's in any case), many of the tenants of a GNA are being met:  meetings which bring neighbor representatives concerns into the internal discussion regarding pollution mitigation and increased transparency in discussing options and sharing information. With the first draft of ESCO's alternatives analysis on the table, the community is getting its best shot in years to consider what might be possible in the effort to reduce emissions.

The problem is that ESCO is just one of the 19 Title V permitted facilities in the city, one of hundreds of industrial air polluters, including 7 other steel processing facilities and 8 petroleum companies. According to a study published by USA Today, nearly all of our neighborhoods are affected by large sources of toxic air pollution, ranking 233 of Portland's 250 school in the bottom third of the nation due to exposure to dangerous industrial air toxics. There has to be a better way.  Sustaining the citizen involvement necessary for these efforts takes tremendous amount of resources to balance the scale of the financial means of those who will fight any type of pollution reduction effort at every turn.

I stumbled across an interesting third way, that is something other than direct citizen negotiation and dreaming for the time when stringent environmental regulations are enacted and enforced. In July 2008, the then outgoing mayor of Houston TX, sick of decades of inadequate environmental regulation that failed to stem the poisonous tide of air pollution in his city, took matters into his own hands.

In an essay written for the Texas Law Review, Ryan Hackney argues that Houston Mayor Bill White effectively substantiates his authority when he enacted an ordinance that gave the City of Houston broad powers to register and inspect polluting facilities within the City.  Hackney says: "local government may be the level of government that can address air pollution problems most effectively. When a state agency fails to take sufficient action to protect local populations from air pollution, the local government may be the only entity that can take effective action."

I am not advocating yet that our city take over the regulatory authority of large industrial polluters, or do what Houston's Mayor did in enacting a parallel matrix of permits, but I think there is a tremendous amount of room for the city to take a more active role in direct discussions with industry and their representatives to move pollution mitigation efforts beyond the current regulatory framework.  The city can exert influence in building permits, zoning, transportation infrastructure decisions, to ensure that equitable pollution reduction efforts are realized across the city.  In the interest of ensuring equitable livability standards for all residents, the city, could ask that air pollution sources be required to do environmental health impact analysis and monitoring so that citizen' right to know is protected, and everyone can understand what the local impact might be from the regulated sources of  air pollution in our city. Finally, the city can be part of enforcing nuisance ordinances and emergency response preparation, two areas where specifically the state fails to adequately provide timely and effective responses to upsets involving air polluters.

Air pollution problems are inherently local, the worst of them manifesting in "Toxic Hot Spots." Yet this is specifically the area where the Clean Air Act and the state regulatory framework has failed to protect citizens.  Ozone and smog are primarily the problems of cities, where sufficient concentrations of vehicles and industry can emit enough oxides of nitrogen (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to create hazardous conditions. Likewise, toxic emissions are primarily an urban problem where industrial operations and residential populations exist in close proximity. Health experts are devoting increasing attention to the issue of toxic hot spots - highly localized areas of acute or prolonged toxic exposure. A January 2007 study by the University of Texas Health Science Center found a 56% elevated risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia among children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel.

Thanks to the hard work of citizen action groups like Environmental Working GroupCenter for Health, Environmental and Justice, and Earth Justice, I am heartened to see new vigor brought to the federal debate around toxics and better enforcement of the the Clean Air Act after eight stagnant years under Bush. It seems that this should be accompanied with an honest discussion of preempting some of the state's authority, where it is so failing its mandate to protect public health, and transferring it into the hands of those closer to the problems.    If direct citizen negotiation is still considered the most effective means of addressing local toxic hot spots, citizens need stronger public advocates to work on their behalf. Portland should look to the spirit of what the Houston Mayor did, which was to say, the city is the best entity to look out for the equitable protection of all its citizens and should be creative in its ideas of how to engage on the issue.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


It was disturbing to read The Oregonian article last week about DEQ's effort to assist a major industrial polluter in circumventing Federal emission laws: DEQ to help polluter seek federal break.

This article is not about jobs vs the environment. It is about DEQ's discretionary authority and the transparency of the process the agency uses to set priorities. It demonstrates the worst fear residents have about the alleged science that tells us industry is not a significant part of the air pollution problem in our city. Instead it is very possible to infer this science masks an agency bias, that while employing no economists on staff, the agency still chooses to weigh the financial interests of the industrial facilities that the DEQ is charged with the duty to regulate. This calls into question every aspect of the DEQ's Air Quality Division, including its basic assumptions for the Portland Air Toxics Solution which specifically has said addressing individual point sources of pollution will be excluded from consideration.

I appreciate that our elected officials like city and state representatives and the governor, may at times be faced with these kinds of tough decisions. Decisions that must look at what serves the greater public good: economy or environment. But this type of over arching decision should not be in the hands of the Department of Environmental Quality which has a mission statement to specifically safeguard the environment and public health and well-being.

In the time since I was given the opportunity to testify at the Health Interim Workgroup hearing, I have been trying to consider what legislative/policy steps might be taken to fix this problem. I have also taken part in the first of six meetings of the Portland Air Toxics Solution (PATS) Advisory Committee. And I have researched existing programs that are better addressing the mitigation of industrial pollutants. There are two things that I think could be specifically interesting for Portland and Oregon to consider:

1. Re-framing PATS to model after the Louisville, KY STAR program. This program brought industry to the table and held them to enforceable emissions standards based on a "no greater than 1 in a million risk" of additional cancers for any one source of toxic pollution. With 32 of 37 industrial facilities in compliance within 2 years, the city has seen dramatic drops in toxic air pollution including a 75% drop in 1,3 Butadiene. Compare this to PATS, which has already invested 10 years to just define the problem and is projecting the program, which will ultimately produce voluntary, not mandatory, guidelines, will also take another 10 yrs to realize results. That is almost two generations of children.

2. Consider a state version of "Kids Safe Chemical Act." legislation introduced by Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Representatives Solis (D-CA) and Waxman (D-CA) to protect Americans, especially children from chemicals introduced by industry, by putting the burden on companies to prove they are safe before they can introduce them into the environment.

While most of the provisions of this bill are designed to combat the unfettered use of toxic chemicals in consumer products designed for children, I believe much of this same language could inform the industrial air pollution regulatory process to better safeguard the air quality of the communities where our children live, play and go to school:

Highlights of the Kid Safe Chemicals Act of 2008

Require Basic Data on Industrial Chemicals
Chemical companies must demonstrate the safety of their products, backed up with credible evidence. Chemicals that lack minimum data could not be legally manufactured in or imported into the United States. [Section 505]

Place the Burden on Industry to Demonstrate Safety
EPA must systematically review whether industry has met this burden of proof for all industrial chemicals within 15 years of adoption. [Section 503]

Restrict the Use of Dangerous Chemicals Found in Newborn Babies
Hazardous chemicals detected in human cord blood would be immediately targeted for restrictions on their use. [Section 504]

Use New Scientific Evidence to Protect Health

EPA must consider and is authorized to require additional testing as new science and new testing methods emerge, including for health effects at low doses or during fetal or infant development and for nanomaterials. [Section 503]

Establish National Program to Assess Human Exposure
The federal government’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is to expand existing analysis of pollutants in people to help identify chemicals that threaten the health of children, workers, or other vulnerable populations. [Section 505]

Expand the Public Right to Know on Toxic Chemicals
New, Internet-accessible public database on chemical hazards and uses will inform companies, communities, and consumers. EPA is to rein in excessive industry claims of confidentiality. [Sections 511 and 512]

Invest in Long-Term Solutions
New funding and incentives are provided for development of safer alternatives and technical assistance in “green chemistry.” [Section 508]

I sincerely believe that the engagement and leadership of our elected officials brings new hope for optimism on this issue of turning back the clock of unfettered industrial emissions. It is time to take the burden off the DEQ to manage the huge conflicted tasks of safeguarding the environment and public health and well being with balancing the interests of the industrial polluters the agency regulates. Specific policy and legislation will provide the clear framework for the regulatory process. I look forward to working with the elected officials, at the city, county, metro and state level, to realize this.