Short Term Air Toxics Benchmarks

On June 30th 2010, when the public comment period closed for the state’s decision on new air toxics benchmarks for mercury, manganese and lead, Neighbors for Clean Air delivered over 500 signatures demanding DEQ address short term spikes in toxic air emissions from regulated polluters.

Air Quality administrator, Andy Ginsburg met Neighbors for Clean Air members and State Representative Mitch Greenlick at the door of DEQ headquarters to accept our petition.  At that time, Ginsburg promised the state was going to address short-term benchmarks in the “near future.”

Well, apparently that day has come in the form of a meeting DEQ is calling:  Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee Meeting to Evaluate Less Than Annual Air Toxics Benchmarks Feasibility.

These benchmarks are the first step in our effort to see real change that will protect our neighborhoods and children from toxic air pollution emitted by regulated polluters. And here are the top 3 reasons why this is a critical  component of the campaign to reform how DEQ protects the public from regulated sources of toxic air pollution:

1. Compliance with annualized averages is not adequate protection of public health because it misses the dangerous spikes in emissions that children can be particularly vulnerable to during critical phases of development, and because the science behind this is just beginning to understand the synergistic impacts of multiple toxicants on critical stages of children’s development.

2. Currently our air toxics regulation allows polluters to have emissions spikes of dangerous toxicants like arsenic, manganese, chromium, and lead that hourly can register up to 300x the current benchmarks, and still be considered in compliance.

3. Currently our air toxics regulation allowed ESCO to have a complete failure of all baghouses for a 10-day period, which meant that unknown quantities of unfiltered uncaptured emissions were released directly into the neighborhood and still this did not trigger any violation of the emissions limits, since they are calculated on annualized averages set high enough to ensure that major upsets do not put the facility in violation.


  • Contact Governor Kitzhaber with the message that we want to see Oregon act now on meaningful air toxics benchmarks to protect our children from short term emissions spikes and plant failures.
  • Attend the meeting DEQ is calling: Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee Meeting to Evaluate Less Than Annual Air Toxics Benchmarks Feasibility
    Tuesday, April 19th 5-7pm, Oregon DEQ Headquarters, 811 SW 6th Ave.
  • Urge your friends, family and colleagues to sign the petition.

EPA releases latest National Air Toxics Assessment

EPA Cancer RIsk Model

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its latest data on air pollution called the National Air Toxics Assessment or NATA.  NATA is designed to provide estimates of the risk of cancer and other serious health effects from breathing (inhaling) air toxics in order to inform both national and more localized efforts to identify and prioritize air toxics, emission source types and locations which are of greatest potential concern in terms of contributing to population risk.

Again, this data corroborates the troubling and oft ignored issue of toxic air pollution in the Portland Metro area. And again, Oregon comes up with the third largest population at risk to toxic air behind California and New York.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has worked to address the negative impacts of toxic air through the development of the Portland Air Toxics Solutions program, or PATS. The advisory committee of same (PATSAC) is due to provide recommendations on pollution reduction efforts to realize the goal of reducing toxic emissions in the region to levels that would result in no more than 1 excess cancer per million risk.  You can read more about the state effort to address air toxics, and the response to the new NATA data at the DEQ website. Multnomah County leads the state in cancer risk due to toxic air pollution.

On top of cancer risks, NATA data also highlights the non-cancer risks of respiratory hazards due to toxic air pollution.


EPA/NATA website

DEQ/NATA information

Portland Air Toxics Solution Advisory Committee Mtg #8 recap

As the PATSAC process rounds the corner to its finish line stretch, the work of the committee is definitely getting more interesting. At the last two meetings, the quality of DEQ materials has been impressive, including the detailed PATS 2017 Pollutant Modeling Summary presented at the January 25th meeting, and from this last meeting, the first phase of examining potential reductions, which focused on point sources.

I recommend you visit the PATSAC website to see all the available documents.

As we get closer to the end of the process, our unofficial quorum of community and public health advocates is beginning to work more closely together to ensure that strategies protective of public health are solidly included in the final document, and that issues of environmental justice are addressed, as it is widely understood that not only do low-income communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of exposure, but often members of the community have limited access to resources to cope with the outcomes of the exposure.

This group, which includes neighborhood representatives like myself, and those from SE, North and NE Portland, Multnomah County Health, Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, and OPAL will continue to discuss how to maximize positive health impacts through the PATSAC recommendations.  That may sound obvious, but since PATS was charged with emissions reductions, it has been recognized that reducing health impacts might be tangential to reducing emissions.  But, as DEQ Air Quality Administrator Andy Ginsburg noted in a recent email exchange, the discussion beyond emissions reductions is both relevant and will likely be necessary as it is probably impossible to realize the reductions of some of the most harmful toxicants below the threshold of harmful health outcomes.  Per Andy’s email: “Where meeting the ABCs through emission reductions is not possible or feasible, I agree that it makes sense to quantify the gap and consider other approaches such as complimentary mitigation recommendations. I’m assuming that by mitigation we mean actions that are generally beneficial but either currently not measurable or not related to reducing emissions.”

The PATSAC is scheduled to meet monthly through July.  We will be going through all sources of emissions and seeing what reductions would be required to meet the benchmarks (ABC) and how that might be attributed to individual sources within each of the large sectors.

ESCO independent audit gets underway

Mr. Jim Karas and his colleague Mr. Fred Tanaka spent three days in Portland last week.  Their time was primarily spent at  ESCO to tour the facility and observe operations. Neighborhood representatives were given the opportunity to meet with Mr. Karas and Mr. Tanaka prior to their visit to ESCO Monday morning at DEQ headquarters.  ESCO declined to participate in this meeting.

The pre-meeting was a key opportunity for the community (represented by Mary Peveto, NCA; Aubrey Baldwin, PEAC, John Krallman (NEDC/PEAC); Bob Holmstrom (NWDA H&E); and Dr. Robert Amundson (NWDA H&E) to get to know the contractor and discuss concerns, as well as establish procedure for communication between the contractor, the community, ESCO and DEQ.

Jim Karas started by introducing himself and discussing his previous work that specializes in the development of foundry specific pollution control and testing and monitoring emissions.  He has worked for over a decade in the Berkeley, CA area on modifications and emissions reduction strategies of Pacific Steel Casting in response to neighboring community concerns and odor complaints.  Fred Tanaka’s background is in chemical engineering.

The community was particularly interested in Karas’ insights to how odor complaints are responded to in the Bay Area; he specifically sited that they have 70 inspectors who respond within minutes to every odor complaint, and criteria in place to establish whether complaints are valid.  When complaints are established as valid, then enforcement action is indicated against the offending facility.  DEQ staffers shared our envy, noting that there are 2 such inspectors in our metro region, who double as permit writers, and it is nearly impossible to respond to complaints to validate them.

In an exit meeting before Mr. Karas and Mr. Tanaka left town on Wednesday, neighborhood representatives, ESCO staff and attorney, and DEQ staff received a pretty detailed accounting of the contractor’s time at ESCO, which included a full tour of the facility and observation of all processes that take place there.  It was noted that this included what turned out to be an upset, and they were able to also observe the worker response to that and evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to minimize excess emissions.

It was also discussed that Karas would be given access to the engineers ESCO hired last summer to conduct the “alternatives analysis,” so that they could discuss the work together, and so that Karas can better evaluate the recommendations that came out of that report.  This has been a key for the community, as it informs the basis of the Good Neighbor Agreement in the works between NW neighbors, NEDC and ESCO.  We have been stating for months that we did not want to offer any opinion on the changes that ESCO’s is proposing until we had the opportunity for those to be evaluated by the independent auditor.

Jim Karas noted as he started his recap that the facility is generally run very well and the staff is clearly dedicated and conscientious. His comments were quite detailed regarding the process and operations, including (but certainly not limited to) the Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) of both the main plant and plant 3, observations about thermal reclaim heating temperatures, uncaptured emissions from dump back, AOD and the chain floor.  But he again revisited opportunity for recommendations on improving response to community concerns, particularly establishing odor complaint response plan, and considering investments in community monitoring stations and/or wind direction indicators.

In conclusion of this phase of the audit, it was established that all communication will be directed through DEQ and the community can expect a draft report back no later than May 16th.  The draft will be made available for comment, and Mr. Karas will travel back to Portland before submitting a final report.

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?

Honestly, 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 Group, Center 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.