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Arts | Environment | Portland's Toxic Air Problem

Could A Regional Air Quality Agency Be A Good Fit For Portland?

Derek Bowen is standing on top of small, enclosed trailer, at the edge of a grassy park in Eugene. It’s overcast and misty but an acronym on the side of this air monitoring station is clear: LRAPA – Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

Bowen comes down a ladder with a small cylindrical filter in hand. It’s been collecting super-tiny particles from car exhaust and wood burning that get lodged in people’s lungs. 

He steps inside the trailer where other equipment chugs and clicks away.   Bowen carefully packs the filter away.  Back at the lab, he’ll check pollution levels by weighing it with a super-sensitive scale.

Derek Bowen of the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency. It's Oregon's only regional air quality agency.

Derek Bowen of the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency. It's Oregon's only regional air quality agency.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

LRAPA operates one of these stations for every 50,000 people in Lane County.  Compare that to one station per quarter million people in the Portland Metro area run by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Revelations about arsenic and cadmium air pollution in Portland have residents asking why state environmental officials didn’t tell them about the toxics earlier.

To prevent similar problems going forward, some Portland officials have floated the idea of creating a regional air quality agency that could better address local concerns. California and Washington use this system extensively. The only such authority operating in Oregon: LRAPA.

Like the DEQ, the Lane County agency issues and enforces air quality permits for business and industry.  Its air regulations have to be as least as stringent as state and federal, but for some kinds of pollution, LRAPA can go further, said Director Merlyn Hough.
“We can also regulate smaller sources. For example, coffee roasters were a frequent source of complaints in years past,” Hough said. “And there was technology and operation to reduce their emission, reduce their impacts, reduce the complaints.”

Responding to air quality concerns from the public is a big part of what the agency does. This is a reason why the city of Cottage Grove pays to be part of the agency. City Councilor Mike Fleck serves as Cottage Grove’s representative on the LRAPA board.

One of the air-quality monitors operated by the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

One of the air-quality monitors operated by the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

 “If someone is having problems with their neighbor, for example, blowing smoke through their property all the time, I think it also gives them a local voice to be able to advocate for them,” Fleck said.

But it’s not all sunshine, clean air and rainbows. LRAPA has taken its share of heat from the community – in recent years from environmental groups for approving a biomass facility in Eugene.
And navigating the fits and whims of four city councils and a board of county commissioners can be challenging, said Bill Becker, head of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.  
“Politics throughout the country oftentimes affect the ability of local and regional air pollution agencies to do their job,” he said. “We wish this wasn’t the case, but it is.”

This makes maintaining local support a challenge. In tight times, it forces local officials to decide between air monitors and jail beds. LRAPA can only afford to test the air for toxics like arsenic and formaldehyde every few years.  
LRAPA’s Merlyn Hough says if Portland decides it wants to create its own regional air agency, each resident should prepare to pay a dollar per year. And that raises the question: will the city want the burden of local control once the memory of air pollution hotspots begins to fade?
 “If you’re not confident you’re going to have the long term support,” Hough said. “There’s probably other things that you ought to use that energy and money for.”

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