Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Dick Pedersen told state lawmakers Tuesday his agency needs $1.5 million for air pollution work in light of the recent discovery of airborne heavy metals in Portland.
Recent air testing found unhealthy levels of cadmium and arsenic in the air in Southeast Portland. Regulators have linked the heavy metals to a facility that uses metals to make colored glass but the detections have raised a lot of questions about why regulators didn’t know until now how much cadmium and arsenic Bullseye Glass was emitting.
The House Energy and Environment Committee held a hearing Tuesday on the situation. Lawmakers asked Pedersen what his agency is doing to correct the problem and improve the regulations that allowed it to happen.
Pedersen said his agency has the authority on its own to write new air pollution without further action by the Legislature, but it will need funding for air monitoring equipment and eight additional full-time employees to develop the new rules and implement them.
Pedersen said he’s looking at rules similar to the ones already in place in Washington and California that allow those states to test air pollution from small manufacturers like art glass facilities and add pollution controls as needed to protect people living nearby from health risks.
“What we have not been applying in Oregon is this risk-based, health-based look at things,” Pedersen said, adding that the current process for issuing permits to pollute does not adequately gauge the “potential impacts to nearby residents from toxic emissions. That’s what we want to apply here. From my perspective that’s the gap.”
Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, asked Pedersen whether the heavy metals discovery in Portland was “an isolated instance or a systemic sort of thing.”
“Share with us how this is an anomaly and not something we can worry about in other places in the state,” he said. “Are there other parts of our processes that need to be rebuilt so we’re not having this same hearing again next year?”
Pedersen said the U.S. Forest Service moss sampling that led to the discovery of the heavy metals in the air is “very innovative” and “highlighted some things we didn’t know.”
He said new regulations will help the state identify potential pollution problems up front so regulators can work with industry to reduce toxic pollutants.
“Quite honestly, we don’t have a lot of information,” he said. “But at this point I’m not going to speculate that there are a lot of other problems elsewhere. We need to look into it. I’m not going to say there aren’t any.”
Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, D-Portland, asked whether the DEQ’s proposed “health-based, risk-based model” of regulating pollutants will help identify other sources of pollution detected in moss around the Portland area.
“The moss study identified areas all around the Portland area that were potential areas of concern, but we have not yet identified the source of all these emitters,” she said. “Some of them are in east Portland, some are in west Portland. They’re really all over. Will we be able to have an inventory of what businesses, what industries are using so we at least have that knowledge of what could potentially be of concern?”
Dick Pedersen said that is the idea behind the new regulations DEQ will start working on next month. Others who testified at the hearing told lawmakers that the DEQ had failed them and that they want to see more action from lawmakers and state environmental regulators.
North Portland resident Mary Postlewaite told the committee she lives in a pollution hotspot.
“I watch my children get up every morning and they’re sick and they’re coughing,” she said. “I don’t know what’s causing it but it sounds like this would be a good cause of what my family is going through. … We want to be able to get up in the morning and take a breath of fresh air. We deserve that. Something you do from the day you’re born is breathe, and now we have to worry about it? That’s ridiculous. … I’m disgusted with the state of Oregon.”
After the hearing, dozens of Portland residents joined Neighbors for Clean Air leader Mary Peveto in delivering a petition with more than 4,000 signatures to Gov. Kate Brown’s office. The petition calls for immediate action from the governor and state Legislature to hold DEQ accountable for protecting communities from toxic air pollution.
“DEQ has been well aware of toxic pollution in Portland neighborhoods — including cadmium, arsenic, diesel particulates and a dozen other toxics — for more than a decade,” Peveto said. If the DEQ isn’t capable of protecting public health, she added, then “it’s time to ask whether DEQ is the right entity to hold polluters accountable and protect our communities’ public health.”
Peveto said she’s hoping Portland and Multnomah County will form a local air quality agency to regulate pollution in the Portland metro area – regardless of what steps DEQ takes to improve state regulations.