Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has thrust himself into the middle of one of the most contentious debates in the region — the benefit of manufacturing jobs versus the environmental impacts of the manufacturing companies.
Merkley has introduced three bills he is calling the “Manufacturing Jobs for America” package. The Senate Democrat touted them at two local press conferences over the past few weeks. One was Nov. 15 at Indow Windows in north Portland. The other was outside the closed Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City on Nov. 26.
At both appearances, Merkley stressed that manufacturing jobs pay more than average jobs.
“For far too long, Oregon’s factories and mills like Blue Heron and their workers have been hurt by foreign competition that lowers their prices by cutting corners,” Merkley said. “We can and must bring back jobs to our shores by cracking down on unfair trade practices while rewarding companies that play by the rules and treat their workers well.”
Some people might argue with that reasoning, however. Neighbors and environmental activists are currently complaining about emissions from several manufacturing plants in the region. They charge the emissions threaten public health and the environment, and accuse federal and state environmental regulators of not doing enough to rein them in.
The most prominent fight is over the new air quality permit being sought from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality by Intel, the large semiconductor manufacturer with plants in Aloha and Hillsboro. Other companies targeted for criticism in the recent past include Esco in northwest Portland, Freightliner in north Portland and Precision Castparts in Clackamas County. All have been accused of violating federal and state clean air standards — charges the companies deny.
Even Merkley’s office admits the issue is complicated.
“Enforcement of existing regulation is important, and Sen. Merkley is committed to seeing that environmental laws are enforced as written. As with most things, there’s always room for improvement,” said Merkley staffer Matt McNally.
Despite the praise and push for manufacturing jobs, controversies swirl around many of the plants where products are made. Neighbors and environmentalists are threatening to sue Intel over inadvertently failing to disclose fluoride emissions, even though the amount did not violate federal or state limits. Activists submitted a petition with 2,600 signatures to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office calling for increased scrutiny of Intel late last month.
Before then, the DEQ brokered a “Good Neighbor Agreement” between ESCO and residents living near its northwest Portland manufacturing plant in late 2011. Residents had accused ESCO of violating emission standards for years. Company officials denied the charges, but agreed to reduce pollution and odors from the plant.
Residents near Freightliner’s truck assembly plant in north Portland have been complaining about paint and industrial odors coming from it. Although the DEQ renewed Freightliner’s discharge permit in July, the complaints are continuing.
And in August, researchers at the University of Massachusetts released a report ranking Precision Castparts as the number one industrial polluter in the nation. It said one-third of the score comes from three Portland area facilities. Company officials disputed the report, saying the data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was misinterpreted.
Resolving such disputes could become increasingly important in coming years. Manufacturing jobs are expected to increase as the economy improves and existing initiatives move forward. They include the Greater Portland Export Initiative — developed with the help of the Brookings Institute — which is intended to double regional exports within the next five years.
Merkley’s bills are intended to do even more.
“Washington can and should do a lot to expand manufacturing, because if we don’t build things in America, we won’t have a middle class in America,” he said when announcing the package.