Senator Wyden’s bill threatens public health and the Clean Air Act

Back-to-school around my house creates a mix of excitement and dread. This year, thanks to a new bill co-authored by Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, there will be another concern and source of anxiety beyond wondering if my kids have good teachers, will schools have the resources to meet the considerable challenges in today’s budget climate, and did we pick the right lunch box.

On July 20th, Senator Wyden introduced a bill co-authored by a Republican Senator from Maine that squarely attacks the Clean Air Act, protecting industry from complying with an EPA rule to upgrade dirty incinerators and boilers. S1392 will delay implementation of critical rules designed to protect the public from the toxic air emissions coming from industrial boilers and incinerators; but worse, the bill also permanently exempts the operators of the most ubiquitous of these from reporting and monitoring, even if they are burning toxic substances like old tires, plastics, and wood soaked in flame retardants. This raises the very real possibility that instead of giving businesses a nudge toward innovation and exploration of clean energy sources and better waste handling practices, there is huge incentive to continue to burn a wider mix of toxic sludge in old out dated boilers with no emission control.

When I called the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality yesterday to inquire about the relevance of this bill in my home town of Portland, OR, I was told by an emissions inventory specialist, that it is very difficult to assess the volume of boilers operating, as most are associated with the smaller operators, categorized as non-permitted fuel use. But his best estimate is that they number in the thousands. Thousands!

I became a mom on a mission almost three years ago when I discovered my daughter’s elementary school to be situated in one of the worst toxic industrial air pollution hot spots in the nation. Not that it is ok anywhere, but this came as a huge shock because I live in a community which through dedicated investments in innovative transportation infrastructure, unique land-use policy, and individuals committed to reduce, reuse, and recycle has made our city a viable candidate for our current mayor’s aspiration to be the “greenest city in the world.” Despite this, while surfing the internet one day, I stumbled on a website published by USA Today: The Smokestack Effect-Toxic Air and America’s Schools, and learned that the neighborhood elementary school my three daughter’s had all attended was ranked in the bottom 2% for those schools exposed to the worst industrial air toxics.

But I also learned a whole lot more. Mostly that the picture is probably more complicated and problematic than that simple study indicates. In the ensuing years our organization, Neighbors for Clean Air, has worked very closely with our state environmental regulators to ensure a robust and thorough audit of the polluter that was number one on the list, ESCO, a steel refinery about a 1/2mile from my daughter’s elementary school, and certainly the most significant source of Manganese. Through concerted public pressure, the company has undertaken the very common sense step of thoroughly evaluating their near 100 year-old plant and identifying opportunities to reduce toxic emissions that come into the neighborhood. We hope to have a Good Neighbor Agreement signed with the company by the end of 2012.

We also learned that the Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI, used as the basis of the model of the national study, is only part of the picture. Due to the unique anti-sprawl philosophy that birthed our metro region’s urban growth boundary, hundreds of industrial facilities operate in the city of Portland, some in the industrial sanctuary, and many scattered among our high-density urban residential Portland neighborhoods. Only 19 qualify as the largest polluters, therefore subject to federal reporting requirements. The rest operate largely undocumented, emissions from which are only estimated by the state.

Senate Bill 1392 would permit these smaller industries to burn a long list of dangerous wastes – such as tires, plastics, and spent chemicals and solvents – without controlling or reporting the resulting emissions. It would also increase toxic air pollution by pushing back long-overdue health standards for industrial incinerators and boilers. Moreover, rather than have the EPA set health standards based on the cleanest facilities in the U.S, the legislation would direct the EPA to set them based on the emissions of the most toxic sources. The original rule that Wyden’s bill will cause to delay indefinitely, is simply a requirement to have some of the sources of the dirtiest air pollution and particulate matter emissions tune-up and upgrade the equipment they burn fuel in. It made sense to have this kind of pollution control review at ESCO, and it certainly makes sense to require it of all potential sources of toxic emissions.

It seems that Senator Wyden is sacrificing our children’s health so that polluting industries can get off cheap. This bill will allow industries to secretly burn poisonous wastes right next to schools, daycare centers, churches, and hospitals without using readily available technology to reduce their emissions. Already, 35 of Portland’s schools rank in the top 5% of all US schools with the most dangerous outdoor air quality. Oregon has the 3rd largest population in the nation at risk of excess cancers due to toxic air pollution. Senate Bill 1392 will only worsen these statistics.


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