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,
Representative Peter Buckley Co-Chair, 503-986-1405,
Representative Dennis Richardson, CO chair, 503-986-1404,
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.

Revisiting The Smokestack Effect

In March 2009, I stumbled across a report on the internet published by USA Today called the Smokestack Effect.  It was a ground breaking study that cross-referenced the federal Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data with school sitings, ranking the schools at greatest risk of cancer and non-cancer health effects due to air toxic exposures.  The findings, especially for us Portlanders, was alarming.  It underscored the risk to our children of toxic emissions from neighboring industrial facilities, in fact bringing to our attention that 35 Portland area schools were ranked in the bottom 5% in the nation air toxic hot spots.

The relevance all came back to me this week when DEQ called to alert me to the fact that EPA was now ready to present its report on the air monitoring study it conducted at my daughter’s school: Harriet Tubman.

As we prepare to witness the EPA response and analysis of the issue of toxic industrial emissions around schools, I think its a good time to revisit the original study:USA Today: The Smokestack Effect

What is in our air?

Every day driving my daughters to school I pass eastbound over the Fremont Bridge. During many of these days as we are just about to exit onto Kerby, we have to pass through a dense dark gray “fog” created by the air emissions of a regulated polluter just below the bridge.  Some days the fog is so thick that its burnt rubber and metallic stench permeates right into the car, and we all lose visibility of anything out the windows for the few seconds it takes to travel through it.  Increasingly, I have become concerned about what may be in that plume, and when it is particularly strong I call the Department of Environmental Quality Odor Complaint to alert them. I am told the “steam plume” that I have witnessed from KF Jacobson, a permitted asphalt plant, is not in violation of their general air contaminant discharge permit (ACDP).  This permit allows the facility to put potentially 24 tons of particulate matter and 39 tons of volatile organic compounds in the air every year. The DEQ permit writer has also told that plume will have a dark grayish color depending on the ambient temperatures or due to the moisture contained in the rock products that are being dried as part of the asphalt process. It should not smell like burnt rubber or metal or anything.

I am beginning to think I have crossed over the crazy line, afraid of every shadow in every smoke stack plume that wafts from the hundreds of industrial facilities tucked among us in this funky mixed use wonderland we call living within the Urban Growth Boundary.

It takes a little crazy sometimes to protect our children.

Last year I was told by DEQ that there is a source of heavy metals including arsenic and cadmium near my daughter’s school that they just can’t explain.  This is unusual in Oregon, that monitoring data exists absent of any known source.  Too often its the other way around. For example, for years residents of the NW neighborhood voiced concern about strange odors and black dust coming from a nearby steel refinery.  But company and state representatives always said the same thing:  emissions from the facility, while not specifically monitored, do not exceed permitted limits based on the self-reported calculations the company provides the state. However, we learned from a study published in USA Today, that those same “legal” emissions put our neighborhood schools among the worst 2% in the nation of schools exposed to toxic industrial emissions.  We also learned from a test of a new monitoring device that can measure 24/7 emissions of heavy metals on the fenceline of large facilities, that this same steel refinery at times emits spikes of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, manganese and chromium 300x the health based benchmarks.

Last year my daughters’ school, Harriet Tubman on N. Flint, was chosen as one of 63 schools across the nation to be included in EPA’s school air monitoring program.  This was an initiative launched in the wake of the study of industrial air pollution and schools published by USA Today, which showed that thousands of US schools, including almost every Portland area school, are situated in industrial toxic hot spots.

I have seen preliminary data from that EPA monitoring that seems to say, despite being situated right above the I5 where congestion builds due to the Rose Quarter-84 interchange, monitoring levels of air toxics showed nothing of concern.  Except there is still that cadmium that we can’t explain. Of course, I wonder about testing protocol and the validity of 24 hour averages when we know that traffic congestion would spike at certain hours.

Which is why I keep watching this plume and keep calling the DEQ to complain.  If we don’t pay attention, who is?