Families, advocates, industry leaders and elected officials turned out Wednesday, July 26 to rally support for more robust oversight of air toxic emissions by Oregon industries.
“We spent a lot of time getting kids into car seats to prevent traffic accidents,” said Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Paul Lewis, who has worked as a pediatrician for 30 years. “We can now prevent almost all bacterial meningitis with vaccines. So we strongly believe in prevention.”
But what are we doing, he asked, to prevent harm from the air we breathe?
“Kids are like hummingbirds,” he said. Where an adult’s heart beats 60 times a minute, a child’s heart beats 160 times per minute. Where an adult takes 12 breaths a minute, a newborn takes 60 breaths a minute. That rapid breathing exposes kids to more air, and more pollution.
“There are established ways to reduce the amount of toxins in the air,” he said. “It’s a moral imperative for us to move forward on this.’’
Lewis called on the state to implement the Cleaner Air Oregon framework, which would require facilities to report emissions of about 660 air pollutants, and regulate air toxics permits for about 215 pollutants for which regulators have established levels that impact people’s health.
“Let’s hear it for the hummingbirds!” Chair Deborah Kafoury shouted as dozens of children waved paper hummingbirds at a gathering outside the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in Portland.
Under Gov. Kate Brown, DEQ and the Oregon Health Authority are updating the state’s air toxic rules as California and Washington have done.
The “Cleaner Air Oregon’’ initiative launched in 2015 after a federal forestry study of moss samples in Portland revealed startling concentrations of heavy metals near artistic glass manufacturers. The companies, operating in compliance with state law, were emitting high levels of unregulated toxics arsenic and cadmium. The emissions became public in February, 2016.
“The moss showed us the air is dirty even if we can’t see it or can’t smell it,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “Strong statewide regulations are the best way to make sure that our air is cleaner, no matter where you go.
Environmental rules lag behind industry
The state’s DEQ currently monitors six pollutants mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and lead.
“The EPA rules are antiquated, they were developed to control combustibles, but since then industry has grown and they use a whole host of chemicals we don't know anything about,” said Matt Hoffman, public health program and policy analyst for Multnomah County’s Health Department. “That makes this rulemaking process really important.”
Alan Sprott, vice president of environmental affair for Portland-based ship builder Vigor Industrial, said they’ve held the same air emissions permit for 20 years.
“When our permit was issued, cell phones were the size of bricks. And like cell phones there have been significant advancements in environmental science and engineering, toxicology, industrial hygiene and risk assessment,” he said. “It is completely appropriate to update Oregon’s approach to air permitting in order to increase the knowledge and to make the system better and more protective.”
State lawmakers this session debated HB 2269, which would have levied a one-time fee on companies subject to air emission oversight, and would have funded the development of the Cleaner Air Oregon program.
The bill never made it out of the House SubCommittee on Natural Resources.
Richard Whitman, director Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said Cleaner Air Oregon will move forward for now, even without the supplemental funds. He said the department will prioritize areas with the highest risk, but encouraged the public to lobby legislators for financial support to implement the full framework.
“We are going to need sign off from the legislature,” he said. “We need your advocacy to get us over the hump in 2018.”
State legislators who champion the effort include Barbara Smith Warner, representing northeast Portland, and Janeen Sollman, representing east Hillsboro and west Beaverton. Multnomah County Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Jessica Vega Pederson also turned out alongside Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
“We’ve seen the health impacts of industrial emissions take their toll on our public health, and too often, low-income communities and communities of color living near the sources of these emissions bear the brunt of those negative impacts,” said Vega Pederson (read her full statement). “Unfortunately, this year the Legislature failed to do their part in protecting our air.”
Dirty air harms children and vulnerable people the most
Sophie Wilson, a 17-year-old student at Lincoln High School and member of the school’s environmental justice club, said it’s time to vote for equality, rather than just debate it.
“People of color are more exposed to air pollution than anyone else,” she said. “In America, your race affects everything — from your seat on a bus, to your ability to vote, and even your brush up with police officers. Now it affects the air you breathe in? I was always told that our fight for equality was getting easier. It seems to me that if people of color now have to beg on their hands and knees to be able to have clean air to breathe in, then do black lives really matter?”
Haile Peveto, part of the award-winning Lincoln High environmental justice group, spoke of how long she has worked alongside her mother, Mary, fight for cleaner air -- since elementary school.
Dayna Jones, a mother of two, said that addressing air quality in communities of color and low income communities will mean the air gets better for everyone else too. She wants to make things better for her 2-year-old son Oberyn.
After the family moved from Colorado so Jones could attend Lewis & Clark law school, Oberyn seemed to come down with allergies. Jones was working for the environmental justice group OPAL this spring, drafting testimony on the Cleaner Air Oregon funding bill, when her partner called. Oberyn was having difficulty breathing.
They rushed him to the hospital, where the doctor asked an odd question: Did the family live near a main road? They live just off Boones Ferry Road, and it turned out her son had Reactive Airway Disease, a condition similar to asthma, but in children under age 6. The doctor suggested air pollution might be the cause.
Jones had advocated for the House Bill that would have funded Clean Air Oregon through industry fees. And although the bill died in committee, she said she’s not done fighting.
“Legislation failed us, but the Governor is on our side,” she said. “And this is important to remind her that we've got her back.”