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Oregon regulators dilute Gov. Kate Brown's clean air plan

 

PORTLAND — Oregon's polluters have again drastically diluted an effort to clean up toxic air in the state.

A 2011 effort to fix Portland's bad air failed. More recently, industry lobbyists convinced lawmakers to withhold money for implementing new rules that Gov. Kate Brown proposed after the 2016 Bullseye Glass crisis in Portland. Now, citing industry “feedback,” the Department of Environmental Quality has loosened the rules themselves.

The newly revised draft rules allow polluters to create far more cancer risk across Oregon than the department initially proposed.

In the original plan, released in March, no business would have been allowed to increase the cancer risk by more than 10 people in every million who breathe the air for 70 years. In the new plan, existing polluters could increase the risk above more than 100 cancers in every million people with agency approval. No cap would be set.

The department has also added a loophole that would give local politicians a say about whether some of the state's biggest polluters should be subject to limits on the toxic chemicals coming from their smokestacks.

The loophole would enable the agency's director to exempt the state's highest polluting businesses from requirements to nearly eliminate the risk from their toxic emissions. Companies would be eligible for the exemption if they installed some pollution controls and consulted with the state health department and local politicians.

The latest move carries far more significance than the budget fight in Salem. This industry victory has been authored by a state agency that answers to the governor, an indicator that her commitment to her clean air overhaul may be wavering amid business opposition.

The deference to local lawmakers evokes what happened with concerns over toxic pollution from Entek International, a Lebanon manufacturer that uses a cancer-causing solvent, trichloroethylene. When the department began investigating the risks to neighbors, local politicians criticized the agency for attacking a major employer.

State lawmakers who represent the area around Entek berated the department during hearings in Salem; one pledged to never fund its budget again. The criticism, coupled with an unprecedented gag order, succeeded in getting the department to slow down its plan to tell neighbors about the potential risks of breathing the air there. The environmental quality department planned to deploy air monitors months ago but its deputy director, Leah Feldon, said Thursday it still has not.

Feldon could not cite another example of a law her department enforces that gives local politicians any discretion over whether it should be followed. Nor could she immediately point to another state's laws with a similar loophole.

Robb Cowie, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, which is jointly drafting the rules, said the changes reflect what he called “feedback” received from an advisory committee of industry and environmental groups.

“In our state, there are communities that do have a major employer,” Cowie said. “We're not giving the community a veto. But we are providing an opportunity for input to inform that decision based on the concerns and what that local community wants us to take into account.”

It's unclear whether the changes came at Brown's urging.

A spokesman for the governor said her office is “having ongoing discussions with legislators and stakeholders throughout the state to strengthen these protections and will continue to pursue resources to sustain the important work of” the toxic air overhaul.

Industry groups have decried the rules, saying they are too restrictive and will force companies to leave the state. Similar rules already exist in California and Washington.

Thomas Wood, an attorney representing timber and manufacturing groups, recently wrote that the process that's expected to take two years is moving at “breakneck speed” and urged delays.

The Oregon Business and Industry group, formerly Associated Oregon Industries, has led the fight against the rules. The group said in a prepared statement that “businesses, communities, and advocates of all types have shared their opinions of” the air overhaul. “This does not undercut any process and we remain engaged in the agencies’ rulemaking efforts to ensure Oregon can have both clean air and a good economy with fair, reasonable air regulations.”

Clean air advocates say the changes are concessions to polluters and are not based on feedback from environmental groups. If adopted in their current form, said Mary Peveto, president of Neighbors for Clean Air, the rules will not spur the kind of innovation that enabled Bullseye Glass to eliminate nearly all of its toxic pollution while still continuing to operate in Southeast Portland.

New businesses were originally limited to increasing cancer risks by 10 people in a million; they can now increase it between 10 people and 100 people in a million with the department director's approval. Above 100 cancer cases, they would not be given a permit.

The plan gives breaks to existing businesses, reducing the number that would be affected by an unknown number. It's unclear exactly how many companies would be subject to the new rules. The department is currently gathering emissions data as part of a months-long effort to make those calculations. It also now exempts 1,500 gas stations and more than 100 dry cleaners.

Another draft of the rules will be released in mid-August.

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