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Portland-Area Leaders Say They'll Create Local Air Agency, If DEQ Doesn't Act

Top elected officials in Portland and Multnomah County are threatening to form their own air quality agency if state regulators don’t crack down on pollution.  

Multnomah County chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown, pressing for action from the Department of Environmental Quality.

It notes the state has studied Portland’s air for years, without doing anything.  

Kafoury said local authorities could form a regional air agency, like one already regulating the air around Eugene. But Kafoury hoped the recent discovery of heavy metals in Portland’s air will spur the DEQ to act.

“That’s the best solution. But if that doesn’t happen, we have no choice but to address the concerns of our community members,” Kafoury said.

DEQ leaders said they intend to write new rules, which could mirror the tougher standards in California or Washington. DEQ director Dick Pederson took the stage at an air quality town hall in North Portland to take questions from a sometimes angry audience. Pederson admitted at the outset that the DEQ had fallen short. 

“One thing has become very clear: we as an agency are not doing enough to reduce or prevent emissions from these kinds of industrial facilities, and that we need to do more,” Pederson said.

Mary Peveto with advocacy group Neighbors for Clean Air is running out of patience with DEQ. Peveto would support a new regional air authority for the Portland area, as Kafoury and Mayor Hales are considering.

“It’s a huge step forward,” Peveto said. She doesn’t have confidence that the DEQ will act sufficiently, noting that the agency worked for years on Portland’s air quality problems without subsequent regulatory changes.

“They’ve had their time — I’m kind of done waiting,” Peveto said. “It’s all in [DEQ’s] rule-making authority, they’ve got to exercise it, or the real change is going to shift to local authority.”

The Eugene area already has a local air agency, called the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency, or LRAPA. Chair Kafoury said LRAPA is one model the county could follow. But Kafoury said she’d prefer if instead, Oregon followed the stronger state rules of its neighbors, Washington or California.

Brown said Oregon will “not delay in developing new regulatory solutions.” But Brown also leaned on federal regulators to tighten rules, “so our companies have a level playing field.”

State officials have said that the Environmental Protection Agency is looking into writing new rules addressing pollution from artisan glass makers, such as Bullseye and Uroboros - the companies tied to the heightened cadmium and chromium levels in North and Southeast Portland. State officials said Bullseye also emitted arsenic in its industrial processes. Both companies have since stopped emitting the elements, even though the emissions fell within current state rules.

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