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.