NCA BLOG

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.

False Choices

The first responders to The Oregonian coverage of Neighbors for Clean Air delivering air toxics petition to DEQ downtown yesterday, gave the usual doomsday speech of pollution reduction equals job destruction.

This age old argument to protect the status quo just doesn’t stack up.  In “free market” America, companies shed jobs and move to other countries because of the economy, not environmental protection demands.  According to a September 2009 article in The Oregonian The Ash Grove Cement Kiln in Durkee, Oregon reduced production not because of long overdue threats to limit the toxic mercury emissions from one of the largest sources in the nation, but because global demand for asphalt has dropped significantly during the course of the great recession.

But in Europe, they seem to be able to choose both the environment and jobs.  In a fascinating March 2010 essay published in Harper’s Magazine on Germany’s labor structure, Thomas Geoghegan notes: “a strange fact: since 2003, it’s not China but Germany, that colossus of European socialism, that has either led the world in export sales or at least been tied for first. Even as we in the United States fall more deeply into the clutches of our foreign creditors—China foremost among them—Germany has somehow managed to create a high-wage, unionized economy without shipping all its jobs abroad or creating a massive trade deficit, or any trade deficit at all.” Or, BP-scale environmental destruction. Maybe America is Europe’s China–companies come over here to get away with what they can’t on their own soil.

It is universally recognized that Germany, and the European Environmental Council, in adopting the Precautionary Principle nearly a decade ago, also get environmental regulation right:  Polluters need to prove they do no harm before they are allowed to impose their toxic outputs into our lives.  We have the opportunity to de-incentify cheap environmentally destructive business models.  We can enact things like “polluter pays” regulations being supported by our own Earl Blumenauer.  We can enact what I would like to say is the “Common Sense” principle.  We know things like heavy metals are dangerous to our health, and devastating to our children’s development, and they will most likely cause irreparable damage that may not be seen for decades, and we know the sources of these emissions.  Let’s stop it.

In response to our demands, Andy Ginsburg has said the state will begin to look at addressing short-term benchmarks for air toxics.  The work won’t even begin until mid-2011.  It has taken the state 10 years to drag itself to this point.  This does not have to be this way.  The Clean Air Act already affords the state the discretion it needs to safeguard public health by more stringent emissions controls and pollution reduction policy. It can write rules today about known heavy metal toxins they measured years ago from identified sources. The state agency can put public health above the needs of the regulated community.

Let’s do it. Today.

How bad is the air in Portland?

I have been on a journey of discovery into Portland air quality since March 2009. That was when I ran across a national study that showed my daughters’ elementary school to be in the top 2% of schools across the nation with the worst air due to proximity to toxic industrial emissions (USA Today: The Smokestack Effect). To make matters worse, in July 2009, the federal government published its most recent National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) report that showed Oregon to have the 3rd largest population at risk of excess cancer due to exposure to toxic emissions.  My latest stop this week, a website introduced through TEDMED 2009 speaker Bill Davenhall, ERSI Global Marketing Manager, that gives users a way to assess health risks through geography.

By inputing zip codes into the search engine a visitor to the site can get a picture of their place history and the environmental exposures associated with them. I have lived many places in my adult life, and I also threw in a few zip codes from my husband’s side which hails from SE Texas to SW Louisiana (otherwise known as cancer alley).  Finally I threw in the zip code for Marietta OH where a school was closed because of the local industrial emissions. Here are some of what I found:

Milwaukee, WI:  14 chemicals
Baltimore, MD: 4 chemicals
Santa Cruz, CA: 8 chemicals
St. Paul, MN: 21 chemicals
Marietta, OH: 24 chemical
Houston, TX: 7 chemicals
Lake Charles, LA: 10 chemicals

And finally, Portland OR: 82 chemicals

82 chemicals.  Portland’s progressiveness seems to expand beyond bike paths, light rail, and the streetcar.

It has been documented that city living in and of itself is a health risk.  I am a strong believer in our urban growth boundary and even in the theory of “20 min. communities.” But are these pillars of progressive land use planning sustainable in an environment that still allows unfettered capitulation of natural resources by industrial entities?

Portland’s contemporary dilemma is nothing new.  Even in 1913, as the ESCO Corporation was part of the movement to fill in Guild’s Lake, and appropriate the NW expanse along the deep water Willamette River for industrial use, other city leaders were battling to realize the promise of the 1907 million dollar municipal park bond measure, and attempting to save the west hills forest from development.

It is hard to say which more suited the values of the family who built the house in 1904 where my family currently lives on lower Thurman Street.  Their parents concurrently built the house next door and a four plex right behind those.  I suspect they were middle class, workers who were benefitting from the jobs close by.  I also suspect they enjoyed the pristine forests nearby, though had no guarantee they would remain.  I do know that they could have no idea what dangers lurked ahead as industrial activity boomed.  There is very little science today to help us understand how these chemicals effect us, and almost none regarding the synergistic effects of 82 of them.

On the eve of the 2nd Portland Air Toxics Solution Advisory Committee meeting, I think it is time for our Environmental Quality Commission to address the unique problems of Portland’s air pollution by ensuring that the Air Toxics benchmarks are truly protective of public health.  The current benchmarks are incapable of addressing the exposures of those most at risk, like children, and those who live in toxic hotspots, exposed to all 82 toxic chemicals and heavy metals.  You can send a message to the DEQ that specifically asks the EQC to ensure that the Air Toxic Health Benchmarks protect children from short term and long term exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment where they live, play and go to school.

Public Comment closes June 30th on the Air Toxics Benchmark ruling, and there will be a public hearing May 18th.  I urge you to make your voice heard that we expect out regulatory process to be protective of public health.

The public meeting the public wasn’t invited to.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has often taken the chance to sing the praises of citizens who are actively engaged in the effort to advocate for cleaner air. Just this past week, the NW Examiner’s April edition came out with a letter from Andy Ginsburg praising Paul Koberstein’s interest in air quality and the health of residents of the northwest neighborhood. Of course, he was also trying to take back statements he made on record about the effect of industrial pollution, but that’s for another blog.

You can imagine the surprise when I learned today that the DEQ held a public hearing in our neighborhood, at the Friendly House on March 30th, to review the Rule change regarding Air Toxics Benchmarks. You can view the public notice here.

Specifically, the notice states: DEQ [plans] to update air quality ambient benchmark concentrations for Ethyl Benzene, Lead, Manganese and Mercury.

Many of you may recall our effort last Fall that sent more than 700 postcards to the Governor’s desk to address the concerns about the manganese benchmark. Then in December 2009, some of you showed up at, and provided testimony at, the actual Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee meeting where these benchmarks were discussed. So it is reasonable to assume that if the agency felt it necessary, or even if law dictates, holding a public hearing to finalize this, that some in our neighborhood would be counted among the public that would participate.

But we never received the notification of this public hearing on the Manganese and other benchmarks. I contacted others active on this issue and not one had heard of this public hearing.

I would have assumed, if the agency was sincere in their interest to have the public participate, I could have been notified about this meeting either from any of the many Air Quality and Northwest Region DEQ staff with which I have had regular contact over the last 12 months, or through my role on the Portland Air Toxics Solutions Advisory Committee, or by whatever means it was advertised publically, or finally, as a subscriber to any one of the five DEQ online updates I have signed up for and from which I regularly receive information. As it stands, Nina DeConcini, NWR administrator for DEQ told me in a very contritely worded email, that “The update to the air quality ambient benchmark concentrations for Ethyl Benzene, Lead, Manganese and Mercury is currently slated to go the Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) at the end of this month for their consideration. We are open to reopening the public comment period and having more hearings, but this would delay the EQC’s action by at least two months.”

This issue of conscientiously including citizen involvement in the regulatory process causing delay is beginning to sound very familiar, and frankly, feel like blackmail. We are already suffering through a two year delay on the renewal of the ESCO permit because somehow a robust and thorough process did not fit into the usual calendar. Maybe it is time for the agency to reconsider how it currently accounts for citizen engagement in its process.

I think the omission of any meaningful communication from the agency to the neighborhood for this public hearing, illustrates the vacuity of the agency’s effort at public engagement. This is either a demonstration of gross negligence or malfeasance. Either way, it underscores the tremendous uphill battle of keeping an engaged and informed public participating in the process when the agency affords it.