PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon’s new clean air law will give Oregonians an unprecedented wealth of information about the health risks that factories create by releasing toxic air pollution.
Yet many factories won’t have to reduce their emissions under the highly touted new law, an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.
The results make clear that the law is a far cry from the major overhaul Gov. Kate Brown promised in response to the 2016 crisis about toxic metals in Portland’s air.
The analysis shows the law was so weakened after negotiations with industry lobbyists that, even if state regulators discover a factory is increasing neighbors’ risk of getting cancer, they may be unable to require new controls.
In other words, Oregon regulators will eventually know a lot about the dangers posed by air polluters in the state, but they often won’t able to do anything about it except to warn the public.
Activists who supported the bill say it isn’t as protective as it should be, but is still an important first step.
“People want to know — what’s my risk from living next to this source?” said Mary Peveto, president of Neighbors for Clean Air, a Portland advocacy group. “We never had a measurable metric. This changes that completely.”
After the 2016 crisis, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality asked more than 1,500 businesses statewide to divulge their annual emissions of 633 toxic chemicals.
Oregon regulators got the information they need to calculate the health risks posed by air polluters last year.
But department officials haven’t analyzed the reports. Lawmakers refused to provide money to translate those numbers into health risks until now. And regulators expect the work to take years.
So we started doing the math for them.
The newsroom used the same formula that the Department of Environmental Quality plans to use in its initial screening to identify factories that deserve further study.
The Oregonian/OregonLive chose 25 plants that: are known to emit large volumes of harmful pollutants; have drawn complaints from neighbors; or were vocal in the debate about the clean air law, Senate Bill 1541.
At most, seven of the 25 would receive additional scrutiny. The number that would have to install new pollution controls or reduce their use of chemicals is likely even lower. State environmental regulators say the analysis shows a worst-case scenario for each facility, a high estimate of risk that will shrink when more sophisticated analyses are conducted.
Several companies said the analysis was too simplistic to determine their actual risk.
“A screening methodology is no substitute for a true risk assessment,” said Ellen Porter, Roseburg Forest Products’ environmental affairs director.
None of the 25 facilities scored higher than Owens-Brockway Glass Container, a bottle plant near the Portland International Airport. Its screening result for cancer risk was 2,916 in a million, well above the state law’s benchmark of 50-in-a-million.
The figure represents the number of additional cancer cases expected from breathing the air around a pollution source for a lifetime.
In 2016, state records show, the plant emitted more than 400 pounds of lead, a neurotoxin, 22 pounds of arsenic, a carcinogen, and 213 pounds of chromium. Because the company didn’t specify whether the chromium was harmless or carcinogenic, the state’s screening assumes it was all carcinogenic. Excluding chromium, the risk estimate drops to 890 in a million, still among the highest of the 25 facilities in the newsroom analysis.
Gregory Sotir, a teacher who lives nearby, said he was surprised the facility scored so high. He said he has worried for years about the brown and black clouds of smoke he sees coming from the plant. But he hasn’t been sure what risk the facility posed.
Sotir said Owens-Brockway had been unwilling to negotiate new pollution controls with the community group he directs, the Cully Air Action Team. Under the state’s original clean air plan, Sotir said he was confident the company would have to reduce its pollution. Now, under the weaker version that passed, he isn’t sure.
If the state won’t act, Sotir said, grassroots community groups like his will instead. Knowing the plant’s risk will be helpful in trying to convince the company to come to the negotiating table, Sotir said.
“If they are one of the leading polluters of toxic metals and carcinogens, we as a community want to know that,” he said.
Janet Galecki, a spokeswoman for Owens-Illinois, which owns the plant, said until the clean air law is signed and the state formally adopts risk assessment procedures, “we are unable to conduct a facility assessment.”
The next-highest scoring facility in the analysis of 25 plants was Precision Castparts’ main campus in Portland, where the screening formula for the company’s 2016 emissions yielded a risk estimate of 1,047 in a million for cancer.
The company told the state its emissions will be lower in the future, resulting in a smaller risk score: 210-in-a-million. The plant installed new pollution controls after monitoring in 2016 showed elevated levels of three heavy metals in the air nearby.
Rob Bekuhrs lives in Ardenwald, close enough that he can see Precision from his balcony. He said he has wondered what was in the smoke he’s witnessed the plant emitting. Now that he knows what Precision Castparts releases, he said he was troubled that the new state law may not trigger any reductions. If the state won’t act, Bekuhrs said, he will.
Told the results of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis, Bekuhrs said he will consider breaking the apartment lease renewal he just signed to find somewhere else to live.
“It’s distressing living so close,” Bekuhrs said. “It doesn’t make me want to remain in the area if the facility remains as it is.”
David Dugan, a Precision Castparts spokesman, said the results of the state’s screening methodology aren’t accurate. They don’t reflect the company’s actual risk because they fail to account for critical information like something called bioavailability, or how much of each substance the human body actually absorbs.
“When bioavailability is taken into account, our alloys are relatively nontoxic,” Dugan said.
The state chose not to factor bioavailability into its initial screening.
Even if the pollutants for which that’s an issue are ignored, Precision Castparts’ release of benzene, 1,3-butadiene, naphthalene and formaldehyde are high enough that the state would require additional scrutiny, our analysis shows.
The results of the newsroom’s analysis make clear how little this year’s legislative debate about air pollution was informed by real-world data.
Some businesses benefited by pushing for higher allowable levels of cancer risk. Others protested even though they would have been unaffected.
Legislators and the governor, with prodding from industry lobbyists, moved the allowable level of cancer risk higher and higher. Brown’s initial plan allowed factories to create a risk of no more than 10 cancer cases per 1 million people. The next version said 25. Lawmakers approved 50, but also will allow many companies to go to 200.
The state’s highest target allows one additional cancer diagnosis in every 5,000 people living near a polluter.
Of the 25 facilities the newsroom reviewed, five would have faced closer scrutiny if Brown and other Democrats hadn’t agreed to weaken the bill’s public health protections.
Those locations are: Precision Castparts’ operations in Milwaukie and Clackamas; Roseburg Forest Products’ plant in Dillard; and Boise Cascade’s veneer plant in Willamina and its plywood manufacturing operation in Medford.
Environmental quality officials say as many as 79 companies could qualify for the higher cancer risk of 200 per million.
By contrast, in California, which began cracking down on toxic air pollution decades ago, state data shows just one company out of more than 30,000 reported a cancer risk above 200 per million in 2015.
Just how many Oregon companies escaped controls when lawmakers watered down the clean air bill is impossible to say. Regulators need to crunch all the numbers they received last year. A state environmental official, Keith Johnson, said the department is first reviewing the data to make sure it is accurate.
“We don’t yet know how many companies may fall over the statutory level of 50 in a million, or how many might fall between that level and 25 in a million,” said Richard Whitman, director of the Department of Environmental Quality. “It will take years to find that out.”
The results could be used to push companies to reduce their pollution even if they don’t exceed the state’s risk levels. Essentially, the state or the public could shame companies into polluting less.
Whitman said the bill doesn’t prevent the state’s Environmental Quality Commission from adopting rules to require companies to notify neighbors if they pose elevated risks. He said public notice had been California’s most effective tool for reducing risk.
Using the state environmental agency’s formula, the other companies that would receive scrutiny because of their estimated cancer or other health risks were: Entek, a Lebanon battery parts manufacturer; Georgia-Pacific’s pulp and paper mill in Toledo; the Oil Re-Refining Co. in Portland; and Vigor Industrial, the Portland shipyard.
Alan Sprott, a Vigor vice president, said the shipyard was still revising its emissions data.
“Whether or not everything will drop below the triggers is unknown at this point,” Sprott said. “But if a problem emerges, we’ll figure out a way to fix it.”
Scott Briggs, owner of Oil Re-Refining, said the numbers he submitted to regulators overstate his company’s emissions because they were based on burning a type of dirty fuel it no longer uses.
Kirk Hanawalt, an Entek president, said sources “don’t know and won’t know what their calculated risks are until they hire a consultant to do the modeling and risk assessment work.”
Georgia-Pacific declined comment.
The newsroom’s analysis showed that at least two companies that protested the clean air rules — Collins Pine and Allegheny Technologies Incorporated — would not have been affected, even under the most stringent proposals.
Jess Brown, a Collins Pine environmental official, told lawmakers that the governor’s original plan was “a travesty” and an “utter sham,” saying his company “may not be able to bear the additional, unreasonable regulatory burdens.”
Yet Collins’ Klamath Falls particleboard plant scored a 6-in-a-million risk, well under any risk threshold state regulators ever considered.
Collins Pine and Alleghany didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The analysis also found several companies that won’t be affected, including businesses that many neighbors have complained about for years. They include: AmeriTies, a railroad tie manufacturer in The Dalles; Daimler Trucks’ North Portland facility; and ESCO’s lone remaining foundry in Northwest Portland.
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com