Oregonians Deserve Clean (not Cleaner) Air

Nicholas Caleb

Our leaders should boldly assert that our airshed is a commonly held resource that the government will hold in trust for the health and enjoyment of present and future generations of Oregonians. We shouldn't settle for cleaner air. We should request and expect to receive clean air, along with a real relationship of respect and stewardship with our airshed.

Oregonians Deserve Clean (not Cleaner) Air

By now, almost everyone knows that Oregon has toxic air.

It seems that anywhere we place an air monitor, we find another instance of air toxics exceeding health benchmarks. On May 19, Governor Brown issued a cease and desist order to Southeast Portland-based Bullseye Glass after the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) monitoring identified the glass manufacturer as the source of lead emissions (among other compounds) at three times the 24-hour benchmark. The following day, DEQ released monitoring data that demonstrated that Precision Castparts, a South Portland & Milwaukie based manufacturer, is emitting nickel, hexavalent chromium, and arsenic above state health benchmarks. 

Then, on May 23, Oregon Environmental Council released a new report on the state of diesel pollution in the state, concluding that "[i]f we do nothing, Oregonians will die from diesel pollution for decades." According to the report, dirty diesel causes more fatalities than traffic crashes, puts 90% of Oregonians at risk for cancer, causes up to 460 premature deaths in the state each year, and results in up to $3.5 billion per year in health costs and lost productivity.

Oregon's toxic air problem is not new. What is new is that more people know about it, the media is finally paying real attention, communities are saying enough is enough (loudly and persistently), and local leaders are threatening to take over management of the airshed if the state is unable or unwilling to protect the public. Because of this sudden and widespread commitment to real change, we're seeing some (long-overdue) positive movement out of our state government. Unfortunately, what we've seen so far falls short of what is needed if what we want is truly healthy air.

Though our Governor has taken unprecedented enforcement action in recent weeks (at the urging of the Oregon Health Authority and DEQ), her Cleaner Air Oregon plan falls well short of what it would take to really solve our air toxics problem. Even the Governor's rhetoric of cleaner air suggests to the public that Oregon can't actually achieve clean air. We can have less toxic air, but we can't have healthy air seems to be the message -- but Oregonians aren't having it. In practice, her plan will mean a very long, bureaucratically administered conversation about how many Oregonians we are willing to sacrifice to cancer and chronic health issues in order to ensure industrial profits. Just yesterday, we learned that the Rulemaking Technical Workgroup -- charged with setting and administering the acceptable toxics risk levels & deciding which pollutants will be covered and their concentration levels under the Cleaner Air Oregon program -- doesn't have a single representative from NGOs, non-profits, or community organizations that advocate for public health or environmental justice. This, we are assured, is the Oregon way.

(The deadline for DEQ's Air Advisory Committee nominations is today, May 27 at 4 PM. You can submit your nominations here.)

However, there is an entirely different legacy that our generation could revive if we want to create an Oregon that values its residents enough to establish the highest standards for responsible stewardship of the air in the nation. Oregon's leaders routinely invoke and wrap themselves in former generations' environmental accomplishments -- bold actions that made our state what it is today. We have world class land use laws, fully public beaches, relatively few freeways, a bottle bill, highways that were transformed into beautiful public spaces, and many more victories that made Oregon a state to envy and emulate. These successes didn't just magically happen. They were built on a vision for the future and a commitment to making it a reality -- over the objections of powerful interest groups and lobbies who were focused more on their bottom lines than our state's longterm bounty.

Instead of treating our air like an industrial dumping ground that we should try to maybe pollute a little bit less if it doesn't make "big business" mad, our leaders should approach air quality with the urgency and intentionality with which we approached Senate Bill 100 and Oregon's land use management system in 1973. Our leaders should boldly assert that our airshed is a commonly held resource that the government will hold in trust for the health and enjoyment of present and future generations of Oregonians. We shouldn't settle for cleaner air. We should request and expect to receive clean air, along with a real relationship of respect and stewardship with our airshed. We depend on it, moreso even than our beaches.

Fulfilling this vision will take sustained political will, but we could set the right trajectory immediately. To start:

(1) Adopt clear and enforceable health and risk-based air quality standards, based on the best available science, for all air toxics, including diesel particulate, industrial emissions, and wood smoke. In other words, declare that we will have clean air in the State of Oregon, define what it means to have clean air, and then empower our agencies to get there.

(2) Adopt the precautionary principle as a requirement for state enforcement of air toxics standards. This means that when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment (like air toxics do), precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. Under Oregon's current approach, the burden of proof is unrealistically placed on the community and the state and, in cases of scientific uncertainty, polluters keep polluting.

(3) provide a consistent, non-fee-based source of funding for the DEQ and empower and fund that agency to enforce the law in line with new health and risk-based air quality standards.

This list of straightforward proposals, while not exhaustive, will put us on the road toward an Oregon where people aren't expected to breathe a cocktail of toxic compounds in their own backyards, out with their families, at daycare, or anywhere in between. We have an opportunity -- which, frankly, may not come again -- to forever change our relationship with our airshed and protect the health and well-being of Oregonians above any other consideration. What we need now is for our leaders -- elected, appointed, hired -- to go beyond the constant celebration of Oregon's environmental reputation and the nostalgia of past victories to roll up their sleeves and make sure that 30 years from now, Oregonians recall this as the generation who made Oregon the model for clean air policy in this country -- and the world.

It can be done. We are the people to do it. Now is the time.

(Full Disclosure: I am the staff attorney at Neighbors for Clean Air and I really don't want to breathe air toxics anymore)

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