NCA BLOG

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.

Salem Update: DEQ Air Monitoring Grant

None of us want to have to wear gas masks when we walk outside on these beautiful days.  But the problem with air pollution, especially some of the most dangerous particulate matter pollution associated with heavy diesel transportation and industrial production, is that it is nearly invisible.

That is why Oregon needs to monitor.  And no one would like to see this happen more than Moms, Dads, and others who have been working tirelessly these past few years to demand it of our state.

Monitoring might show us a clearer picture about the risk to children who live and go to school in neighborhoods around Clarendon k-8 school, which modeled among the worst in the nation for exposure to toxic industrial air pollution.

Monitoring could help assess the risk for the SE Portland and Milwaukee communities who live in the shadow of the 21st largest polluter in the nation: Precision Cast Parts.

Another item we are tracking in Salem is the ridiculously obvious EPA air monitoring grant rfp DEQ has proposed to apply for up to $700,000 EPA is making available to states to monitor air toxics. There are no matching requirements, this ostensibly costs the state of Oregon nothing to address an issue that is of high concern among its citizens and public health advocates and agencies.  This is pure federal dollars to pay for what Tom Wood, representing Associated Oregon Industries, said in the house interim hearing on public health and air pollution back in August 2009 at the beginning of this adventure: “Yes we need to monitor- but you (pointing to the state representatives/senators on the committee) need to pay for it.”

This could even potentially create five Oregon jobs.  Simple, right?

To apply for these funds, DEQ needs legislative approval.  The deadline for submitting the application is May 23rd.  It has failed twice to get on the Ways and Means agenda, with no response or explanation from the Committee co-chairs: Devlin, Buckley and Richardson to my many emails (and a slew from other parents whose children attend schools identified to be ranked among the worst in the nation due to exposure to industrial air toxics).  Simple question: Why would you not take federal money to do what everyone has said repeatedly is a good idea but we don’t have the funds to do it?

About two ago I was alerted by Dingfelder at a Mother PAC cocktail hour that the Republican co-Chair (Richardson) on the Ways and Means Committee was refusing to put this on the agenda-How he prevails when there are actually 2 democratic co-chairs and 1 of him, is beyond me. This was confirmed to me by another of my Salem representatives, who put it so bluntly in an email: “There are people in this building (and in the Capitol in Washington) who object to government.  They do everything they can to starve government.  Not allowing federal funds to come into the state is one way to starve the state government.  And there are certain agencies they hate worse than others.  DEQ is probably first among them.”

Tracy Prince did a great job of explaining why Oregon should apply for this money in Sunday’s Oregonian: A simple step to improve air quality for schoolkids.

Now can you take action? Contact the co-chairs of Ways and Means and get this simple grant application request on the committee agenda:

Sen Richard Devlin- Co Chair 503-986-1719, sen.richarddevlin@state.or.us
Representative Peter Buckley Co-Chair, 503-986-1405, rep.peterbuckley@state.or.us

A very harsh civic lesson: HB 2081, the trucker’s anti-idling bill

The Republicans have it figured out.  They understand that without a majority, with a simple tie in the legislation, they can prevail.  They do it by banding together behind a single ideology.  So the Democrats are now dividing to conquer, making strange bedfellows and alliances like Oregon Environmental Council and the Oregon Trucking Association, not realizing that while they may be scraping tiny victories off the floor, they are losing one giant ideological war. Dems fight for health care, Republicans fight for small government, Dems fight for services to the poor, Republicans fight for small government, Dems fight for the environment, reproductive rights, food for the hungry, service for the elderly, education, bike paths, you name it; and, the Republicans fight for small government.

Let me explain.

My trip to Salem to testify on the anti-idling bill yesterday was a harsh civic lesson. It seemed clear this bill was not up for much “discussion” in terms of the cool reception we received, on the grounds that Oregon Environmental Council was an early sign on to the bill. It is humbling to witness the lopsided process.  After the Senate committee sat through the Oregon Trucking Association rep’s presentation of “his bill,” all but two Senators, including the chair of the committee, got up and left as Lisa Arkin, executive director of the Oregon Toxics Alliance began to speak. She presented her case for HB 2081-9, that would return the bill to its original form and removing only the local preemption section.  Chair Lee Beyer, returning after her testimony, did call a recess and push it to resume “next week.” I think that can be seen as positive move and allows other local governments to weigh in, and gives us some more time.

The problem is not so much in the ambiguity of the language in terms of idling restrictions -which move in the right direction but are very weak- but in the preemption of local jurisdiction to fill in the gaps to address localized impacts. I continue to ask that the preemptions be removed. Let me explain my case study (real story) which would fall into that gap:

Last year, four days a week, I walked my daughter three blocks to Friendly House Community Center which, in a small daylight basement room, operates a phenomenal Head Start preschool program for three and four-year olds. Across the street from the entrance to the pre-school is a neighborhood convenience store.  On many occasions, either in the morning dropping off, or midday pick-up, I encountered idling trucks parked directly in front of the door of the preschool, while their drivers ran into the convenience store to deliver products.  This small residential street is not well suited to these trucks.  I started to become more concerned about this issue when I would see on occasion 1-2 trucks concurrently, and finally on May 20, 2010 I wrote to our city commissioners when I encountered four idling trucks parked at the same time as I, and the other parents, picked up our children from the pre-school.  The response that the city sent me was clear: there are no city laws to preclude this; but we should continue to look at the unique situation proposed and develop guidelines that address the cumulative issue of many trucks at once in an area unsuitable for this kind of traffic.
HB 2081 won’t address this problem, and it leaves me and the school with no recourse to address it:

1. As a pre-school, this (and all daycare centers presumably) is not included in the language that addresses schools in Section 5 (9) which states vehicles -as long as they do not meet the many exemptions allowed – may not idle when “parked on or adjacent to a public or private educational institution offering education in all or part of kindergarten through grade 12.”

2.  The trucks I witnessed regularly were making relatively quick deliveries to this small convenience store, rarely parked more than 15-20 minutes, so they again would be exempt as stated in Section 5 (11) since vehicles were allowed” a maximum of 30 minutes while waiting to load or unload the commercial vehicle or while actually loading or unloading the commercial vehicle during a single loading or unloading event.

3.  These vehicles often would also be exempt on the grounds of Section 4 (2b) on the grounds that since they were most likely to be refrigerated units delivering perishable goods which would make it necessary to “operate a cargo temperature control unit to maintain cargo.”

4. Nothing in the bill precludes or limits the number of idling trucks that can sit on one small residential street adjacent to a preschool entrance, so the fact that four would deliver at the same time is not addressed.

5. Finally, my recourse, to address this issue with the city, which, I did, and representatives of which  acknowledged there is no law to preclude this commercial activity, but it would be reasonable to address the unique circumstances and the cumulative impact on the health and well being of the children at the school. Section 6 (1&2) amendments specifically precludes me from continuing this discussion, as the city will no longer have any authority to address it, or enact solutions for which might be as simple as signage to alert truck drivers that they are in a high impact zone.

In my testimony, I readily admitted that I was realistic enough not to expect a first ever statewide anti-idling bill to address all the adverse localized impacts on public health unique to individual communities and neighborhoods. But I do expect the state assembly to not strip me of my rights to address these  localized impacts, especially when what they offer is void of any protection to Oregonians exposed to the nuisance and adverse health impacts associated with breathing diesel exhaust. But the current Democratic strategy, with an equal share of the power in Salem, is to sell out the democratic process through ignoring citizen testimony and granting preemptions to local authorities, all for the sake of winning what ever scraps are left from the banquet table of the gloating Republicans who bask in the knowledge that their ideology is winning in every battle, because it is the one and only thing they work united on achieving.

Ways and Means Committee has yet to put DEQ air monitoring grant application on agenda

Concern growing that DEQ will not meet EPA May 23rd deadline for applying

EPA has announced up to $700,000 available to state regulators for Community-Scale Air Monitoring to assess the risk in the toxic hot spots like those identified in the USA Today Smokestack Report.  See the list of schools that rank the worst in Oregon.

DEQ must get approval from the Oregon Legislature to submit an application for these funds.  At a time when budgets are so austere, there is no way monitoring money will be found in the state, it seems logical that Oregon should take advantage of federal money that comes with no matching requirements.

Please consider contacting the co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee and urging them to put this grant request on the agenda:

Sen Richard Devlin- Co Chair 503-986-1719, sen.richarddevlin@state.or.us
Representative Peter Buckley Co-Chair, 503-986-1405, rep.peterbuckley@state.or.us
Representative Dennis Richardson, CO chair, 503-986-1404, rep.dennisrichardson@state.or.us
For more information about the committee, including names, emails and telephone numbers for the all members, and the agenda, you can visit the Oregon Legislature Ways and Means Committe Website.

To test or not to test

I was in my pediatrician’s office this morning pinning my  5-yr old down on the examination table as she looked at me, terrified, pleading: “Why do I have to do this?”

“This” was getting a needle inserted in her small blue vein at the soft underside of her elbow, to extract blood.  “Nickel requires A LOT of blood,” the nurse explained. Then the nurse turned to me and asked, “Why are you doing this? I need to write something on the order; your insurance may not pay for this.”

Maybe I hadn’t thought enough about this.  Maybe this is crazy. Maybe I am subjecting my child to unnecessary trauma.  Moms are great at second guessing everything; I certainly didn’t need the pediatric nurses assistance.

I arranged to have blood samples drawn from my daughter to test for heavy metals like manganese, arsenic, nickel and chromium.  I did this because my daughter attends a school that was ranked in a national study to be among the worst 2% of schools with exposure to industrial air toxics.  I did this because five years ago, dust samples taken in the neighborhood confirmed that soot on our porches contained contaminants emitted from the nearby steel refinery, like lead and manganese and chromium.

I also did this because another family I know has been lost in a toxic nightmare since last spring when their son’s school approached them about his behavior issues.  Follow-ups with their pediatrician and a natural medicine provider revealed an astounding fact.  Their son had arsenic poisoning.  In the subsequent year, repeat tests show it to be chronic (meaning consistent exposure, not a single exposure) and have ruled out food and water as the source. That leaves environment.

We know that Oregon has high levels of naturally occurring arsenic.  We also know that it is emitted by polluters: metal processing specifically contributes over 60% of the human-caused arsenic emissions according to DEQ source material for the Portland Air Toxics Solutions; it also comes from agricultural pesticides and soil dust,  as well as combusted fuel from vehicles.  We know it is classified as a KNOWN (Class A) human carcinogen. We know that arsenic is one of 15 air toxicants that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality identified as being up to 10x over health-based benchmarks in the Portland Metro air shed.  What we don’t know: How is this affecting my child? Are our children safe?

So, I am joining other parents who are taking the first step to answer that question.  Talk to your pediatrician.  Get your child’s blood sampled.  Go from there.  The right-to-know is our most basic environmental health right.  A good place to start.