I wrote this “open letter” in response to a facebook post earlier this week on the Eastside Portland Air Coalition facebook page. It was a comment from one of EPAC’s founders, Jessica Applegate, a woman who has been tirelessly dedicated to clean air activism since last spring, and who has emerged as a true leader for her community.
You made such an important point, and asked such an important question, when considering whether there exists any reason to believe Cleaner Air Oregon will substantially change the way air pollution is regulated in our state; you wrote: “This is scary and supports my worst fears- that all of the Cleaner Air Oregon will be for nothing. How is this different?”
The simplistic answer is that this is different exactly because of you. Because you, and thousands of your neighbors care about the outcome. If you want to know – that is the only distinction I can see between now and 10 years ago when the state put together and executed the Portland Air Toxics Solutions (PATS) project. And it is the reason to be hopeful, beyond hopeful, optimistic. Again, because of Eastside Portland Air Coalition and South Portland Air Quality, and North Portland Air Quality, and Cully Air Action Team, and The Dalles Air Coalition, and Corvallis Clean Air, and Haydon Island Clean Air. Never before has there been this widespread, but connected, network of clean air activists laser focused on what the state is doing around air emissions regulations.
When I first joined the PATS Advisory Committee (PATSAC) in 2009, I was so much like you are now as the Eastside Portland Air Coalition representative on the Cleaner Air Oregon Advisory Committee (CAOAC) this fall. I had only just months before been awakened from my deep ignorance of the problem, having no applicable training or grounding in anything related to the complexity of atmospheric chemistry, air emissions regulations or even community organizing, for that matter. I had successfully (by metrics at the time) rallied friends and neighbors around the crazy injustice of a regulatory system that made polluting our neighborhood with toxic heavy metals legal and that used only the flimsiest metrics, annualized averaged ambient concentrations, to measure any consideration of health risk. And, like you, I had quickly connected enough dots to see that the problem of toxic air pollution was not just my neighborhood’s problem but it was the problem of any Oregonian that lived next to a facility that was permitted to emit toxic chemicals into the air, and anyone who breathed in any neighborhood in Portland.
Most importantly, I knew this was about all the children who went to schools and lived in neighborhoods as – or more – polluted than mine, whose parents and collective community didn’t have the time or resources to fix this themselves. Where populations were more likely to have higher percentages of people of color, lower income, and non-english speaking families, making navigating the craziness that is DEQ public process impossible, much less establishing a basic level of understanding about the problem and risk.
So it was, despite the chorus of skepticsm of long term advocates, I entered into the PATS committee work with great expectations. Like now with Cleaner Air Oregon, elected officials I turned to directed me to that as the answer to my concerns. The state had a plan to resolve the deficiencies of air emissions regulations in our state. This would be the path to closing the huge gap between what was currently legal and what was reasonable to assume was a risk to my children and all the people that breathe air in Portland.
I don’t need to rehash the outcomes of that process. The Oregonian reporter Rob Davis did a far more admirable job than I could hope to last spring in his investigative report: How Portland learned its air was toxic – and failed to fix it.
So why should we be optimistic in the face of the same such entrenched interests that will be dedicated to make this latest effort fail? This time around, why should we expect regulators to regulate and industry to capitulate?
It is not those players who will be different – it is ours. During the PATSAC process there was a loose affiliation of like-minded individuals and organizations representing the public. We were unfortunately just not prepared to do much more than support each other’s individual contributions, and more often, exchange glances and roll our eyes in understanding when we heard cringe worthy declarations of opposition to anything that moved in a progressive direction. And when the dust settled, as we suspected, the game had been so rigged, that there had probably been no way to move against industry opposition anyway.
But as I predicted then the day I walked out, that end was just the beginning. We have not wasted the time since, instead spending the subsequent years building broad awareness among elected leaders and local municipalities of the failure of existing regulations; of the existence of solutions to deal with toxic air pollution. We have learned even more about the growing scientific consensus of risk, and the means by which folks working on the forefront of technology were identifying new ways to measure and new ways to mitigate pollution. We have worked with companies willing to help us understand what is possible. We have continued to push against ones that won’t change. We have joined forces with public health advocates. In the lead up to the 2015 legislative session, we did the hard work to build a genuine coalition of over 20 like-minded organizations. This coalition educated ourselves about and worked together against the most insidious air toxic in our state: diesel.
But still what we needed was you. You – and all of the people who have risen up over these last six months speaking out, telling their stories, saying “no more!” – this is our army – the foundation of confidence that we will prevail. We have expertise and more importantly we have solidarity, at least around the most basic principle: All Oregonians deserve clean air all the time.
With sincere respect,
Throughout the month of September, the Department of Environmental Quality will host a series of statewide forums on the progress of the Cleaner Air Oregon reform process. On October 5th at 6-8 PM, the final forum will take place in Portland at the Oregon Convention Center.
Before the event, clean air advocacy groups will host a rally to communicate a vision for how we can achieve clean, healthy air in our communities. Let’s show DEQ that there is mass public support for real change!
Follow the Clean Air Rally event page on facebook to get updates on speaker list and program description.