Why is Wyden Siding with Industrial Polluters?

Nick Engelfried

There’s simply no reason to delay Clean Air Act rules that will save lives and prevent illness, unless you accept the invalid argument that industry really needs more time to get ready.

While representing Oregon in the US Senate, Ron Wyden has come through for environmentalists many times. And no wonder—after all Oregon has a long history of environmental leadership, and Oregon voters value healthy air, water, and land.

I’m grateful to Senator Wyden for many votes he’s cast to uphold or improve environmental laws. But I’m saddened by his recent decision to side with polluters on a bill that would significantly weaken the Clean Air Act, setting a dangerous precedent while exposing Oregon communities to life-threatening pollutants.

In a move that’s been picked up by national media like the New York Times, Wyden announced earlier this summer that he’s co-sponsoring a bill with Republican Susan Collins of Maine, to delay Clean Air Act rules for industrial boilers. The legislation applies to facilities that burn waste material like tires, spent chemicals, treated wood, and plastics.

Under the Wyden-Collins bill, the issuance date for rules limiting pollution from these sources would be pushed back a minimum of fifteen months. Meanwhile the compliance date would be delayed by two years. Importantly, we are talking about Clean Air Act rules that have been delayed for more than ten years already.

The bill also leaves open the opportunity for the US Environmental Protection Agency to never finish the new rule at all. This is a very real threat, as the EPA rarely completes a rulemaking unless it has been ordered by a court to do so. And if a Republican wins the presidential election next year…well, you can say goodbye to industrial boiler rules for the foreseeable future.

If you want an in-depth analysis of the debate around the Wyden-Collins bill, you can read the New York Times article. But the question I want to raise is, why exactly does Senator Wyden think further delaying pollution rules is justifiable?

(More below the jump)

According to a press release from Wyden’s office, the Wyden-Collins legislation gives the EPA and industry needed time to finalize and comply with pollution rules. This logic might as well have come straight from the GOP’s own handbook, and is essentially identical to arguments Republicans have made for delaying or derailing everything from carbon regulations to limits on toxic mercury pollution.

It’s ridiculous to argue that a rule which has already been delayed over a decade needs to be set back even further. But it’s just as important to realize the delay would have a real and tangible impact on Oregon.

Ironically, the Portland area already suffers from dangerous levels of particulate and other air pollutants, which are exacerbated by weak rules for industrial incinerators. These pollutants are particularly harmful to children and elderly—the very people who are already most vulnerable in our society. Delaying new boiler rules means sacrificing the health of children and seniors.

In the media, Wyden’s office has portrayed his move to delay incinerator rules as just one more example of his willingness to put aside party politics, and “compromise” even when it means annoying a few environmentalists. Such vague justifications are basically meaningless: being Mr. Bipartisan doesn’t give you a green light to defect on the values of your base whenever you feel like it.

Of course there are times when compromise in politics is necessary. In such situations, Senator Wyden has often been a strong voice for bipartisan cooperation. But this isn’t one of those times. There’s simply no reason to delay Clean Air Act rules that will save lives and prevent illness, unless you accept the invalid argument that industry really needs more time to get ready.

If Senator Wyden expects support from his base on this, he needs to do more than make vague statements about the value of compromise in politics. He also needs to explain why he would support legislation that not only delays clean air rules, but leaves open the possibility that these rules might never be enforced at all.

My question for Senator Wyden is, why?

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    I've supported and cheered for many things Senator Wyden has done for Oregon - and the country as a whole in the past. I just can't see him doing this without a good reason, and I'd like to hear him explain it, if he has one.

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      Nick, that was a very helpful article. I'm going to write Senator Wyden and express my concern over this extension.

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    Nick-I share your concerns. I hoped to hear the answer to the question when Sen. Wyden was on Think Out Loud last week. Instead it was disheartening to hear him deny the bill allows for permanent exemptions and characterize the bill as simply a necessary and reasonable extension. You raise important concerns about granting any more delays, but I still want to know why the senator is not being forthcoming regarding the permanent exemptions Sect 4 of the bill grants to small industrial facilities who now can burn a laundry list of toxic substances with no reporting requirements. I called Oregon DEQ yesterday and was told there are thousands of such boilers in the Portland Metro area alone, which means they very well may be scattered among our neighborhoods next to schools, parks and other places my children are. I want to know why Senator Wyden is protecting dirty industry practices that threaten public health.

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    Senator Wyden's push to amend the Clean Water Act to provide the timber industry with a pollution discharge permit exemption is also the subject of a full-page ad placed in the current Willamette Week by 15 local and national conservation organizations:


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    Also, here's a link to the bill: http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/mact.pdf

    The bill Senator Wyden is co-sponsoring would redefine "factory scrap tire and related material", "coal refuse" and "process wastewater" and over a dozen other similar substances to not be solid waste so long as they are combusted in a neighborhood industrial boiler.

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    According to an editorial in the Bend Bulletin, the EPA is making these regulations under court order. Further, the EPA asked for and was denied a 15-month extension. Wyden's bill is puported to actually support EPA's request for a 15-month delay in order to further define what materials can be used in boilers and incinerators. Perhaps there is a rational explanation.

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    Does anyone from Wyden's staff [Senate or campaign] follow Blue Oregon. If so, why no response? If not, why not?

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