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.

Why I support Rex Burkholder for Metro President

I think it would be a misrepresentation to call this an official endorsement, as if I was in a position to offer meaningful weight, so let’s stick with political musing.  I intend only to share my thoughts, and encourage all of you to choose your candidates wisely, vote with purpose, and to remind the candidates why you voted for them.  I don’t think our air toxics problem is a litmus test issue for political candidates, yet.  But I do think that the way candidates, and already elected officials, engage on this issue is very telling about their attitudes toward their jobs and the concerns of their constituents.
There have been some notable efforts by our representatives to look at what jurisdiction they have in the area of air pollution, and how best they can use it.  Representative Mitch Greenlick has been particularly active, making the connection between pollution and public health, he has been looking at ways to plug gaps in our legislation that will safeguard our kids from exposure to air toxics.  His leadership on the House Health Committee has galvanized that group to push for new policy for the 2011 legislative session. Notable support from that committee has come from Rep. Ben Cannon and Sen. Suzanne Bonamici.
Other efforts to engage public officials has been less gratifying.  From our Governor’s office which oversees the DEQ and Environmental Quality Commission which is the agency’s rule making body,  we have received nothing but form letter replies, and responses from the DEQ officials to whom the letters were forwarded.  I sat through yesterday’s Governor’s debate on the environment, and it is clear that either Democratic candidate, Bradbury or Kitzhaber, will bring a more purposeful mandate to our environmental policies than the current resident of that office.
Multnomah County officials, while responsible for our County Health Department and Public Schools, say that the County has no authority over air pollution, even if it is adversely affecting the health of children while at school.
The city, which has authority over nuisance ordinances between neighbors and businesses, does not seem engaged to move on the ongoing -and classic- nuisance complaints of odors and dust when they come from one of the large industrial sources of pollution.  Mayor Adams and City Council member Amanda Fritz are very aware of the NW neighborhood’s ongoing struggle with industrial emissions, and seem genuinely supportive of our efforts; and yet again, there seems to be lacking any specific authority or jurisdiction over the air pollution issue.  I think for both the city and the county, this pattern of evasion underscores the need to put air toxic pollution, and enforcement against offenders, into the hands of the elected officials closest to the sources.
Which brings me to Metro and Rex Burkholder.  As the nation’s only elected regional government, Metro was put in place specifically because – as their website says – “clean air and clean water do not stop at city limits or county lines. Neither does the need for jobs, a thriving economy and good transportation choices for people and businesses in our region. Voters have asked Metro to help with the challenges that cross those lines and affect the 25 cities and three counties in the Portland metropolitan area.”
Since Rex Burkholder first showed up at the Air Quality Town Hall Meeting we held last spring in the Chapman ES Auditorium, he has continued to be an ardent supporter of our effort.  I believe, that if Rex were Metro President, he would consider taking a look at the lack of city, county and regional jurisdiction over the “nuisance” of air pollution, and give us a representative, closer than Salem, which citizens could turn to in resolving the oppressive presence of industrial odors and black dust, which affect the region’s residential livability. His track record of innovation and leadership from a founder of BTA and assisting in the establishment of the Center for a Livable Future demonstrate that he not only has leadership skills, but the unique capability to look at creative new options to solve old problems.  And that’s why I support Rex for Metro President.

Why BPA and Air Toxics are linked

Our friend at USA Today, Blake Morrison, has just published an article covering the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) damning report on chemical policies released this past week.  The report was an assessment of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) performance over the past decade in regards to safeguarding our children from toxic chemicals.  Morrison reports: “Top officials routinely ignored scores of recommendations by the agency’s own children’s health advisory committee.”  And the article goes on to quote Ted Schettler, science director for the advocacy group Science and Environmental Health Network, who has served on EPA and National Academy of Sciences advisory committees: the problems “are setting the stage for an overwhelming wave of disease and disability…in the coming decades.”  Of particular concern, Morrison notes: “the lack of information about thousands of chemicals and how they interact with each other.”

Which brings me to the toxic bisphenol or BPA.  Oregon’s failure to pass a bill to ban BPA in baby bottles seems like a very sad indicator of the political will in this state.  As I reported in an earlier blog,  Jon Isaacs of OLCV said of this bill:  “I don’t think it’s possible for a public health issue to be any less controversial and straightforward to Oregonians than keeping toxic chemicals out of food containers intended for babies.” But instead of joining the ranks of Maryland, Washington, and Wisconsin -states who all figured out that we need to act faster on information that the FDA and others have now- Oregon legislators split 15 – 15–and a tie means a loss.
What to do now?  Oregon Environmental Council has vowed the fight over BPA is not over.  And I would implore that we consider the BPA fight closely linked to the air toxics fight.  This isn’t a niche issue, this is a chemical used ubiquitously: plastic bottles, baby bottles, nearly all canned goods.  Consumer Reports and Environmental Working Group each issued extensive studies of the hazards of BPA late last year. And this issue is about the broader issue of chemical reform and the proliferation of industrial chemicals into our air, our food chain and our environment.  We need to raise our voices and let our legislators know we expect Oregon to be at the front of this movement.