Smokestacks emitting air pollution.

Smokestacks emitting air pollution.

Creative Commons/Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

Oregon regulators are proposing new air pollution rules that would limit the total health risk a polluter can impose on its neighbors.

On Friday, the state will start taking public comments on its proposed rules under the Cleaner Air Oregon program Gov. Kate Brown launched last year.

But on Thursday, the debate had already begun over whether the proposed rules are protective enough of people’s health.

The new rules would target 80 yet-to-be-identified polluters that pose the highest health risks and bring them into compliance over the next five years. Their ultimate goal is reducing the cancer risks from industrial toxic air pollution statewide to less than 100 cases per 1 million people by 2030.

To do that, the state will need the Legislature to approve a set of fees on regulated businesses that will cover the majority of the costs of implementing the rules.


Portland’s Toxic Air Problem

Portland’s air is dirtier than we thought. A study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Forest Service revealed dangerously high levels of heavy metals in Portland, sparking an investigation into the sources and causing regulators and officials to question why the pollution was left unchecked for so long.

Without that approval, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Whitman, the state would only be able to carry out “a minimal program.”

The Cleaner Air Oregon initiative was intended to close gaps in the state’s existing air pollution regulations – gaps that were exposed last year when researchers testing tree moss found previously undetected hot spots of toxic air pollution near glass-making facilities in Portland.

In kicking off the year-long reform effort, Gov. Brown promised “sweeping change” to the way Oregon regulates air pollution.

“Our current laws really focus in on area-wide air quality in terms of pollution level,” Whitman said. “They don’t really focus on the effect on neighbors of a particular industry.”

Under the new program, facilities would be required to report emissions of 600 different pollutants and evaluate the risk of cancer and other health problems that stem from exposure to 260 different pollutants. They would be required to reduce their emissions if they exceed the total health risk limit. That limit starts at an added cancer risk of 25 cases for every 1 million people.

To reduce health risks, businesses can install emission controls, replace hazardous materials with safer ones or adjust operations to reduce pollution. The state would consider exceptions for facilities that are exceeding health risk limits but are already using the best available pollution controls or can demonstrate financial hardship.

The state plans on choosing one area in the first five years to evaluate the cumulative health risks from multiple polluters.

Whitman said he’s expecting debate over whether the new rules are too protective of human health or not protective enough.

“Any new program where we are working to protect public health and at the same time where there are going to be financial impacts on existing businesses is going to be somewhat controversial,” he said. “So, there will be some controversy in the Legislature.”

Mary Peveto of Neighbors for Clean Air said there are “some concerning elements” of the proposed rules that she hopes will be changed before the rules are final.

“Just because the rules aren’t quite right right now doesn’t mean it’s a failure at this moment that can’t be recovered from,” she said.

One problem she sees is that the upper limit cut-off for how much health risk a facility can pose to its neighbors is way too high.

That cut-off is currently set at 500 additional cancer cases for every one million people.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “I can’t even imagine the facilities that would reach that kind of cap.”

Robb Cowie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, said that cut-off is “a level we wouldn’t let any company exceed under any circumstances.”

A facility reaching that cap would be at risk of getting shut down altogether if it couldn’t make changes in operations that would bring the health risks down, he said.

The state will take comments on the rules for 60 days and has scheduled several hearings around the state over the next two months. The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to consider approving final rules in July. Approval would put Oregon on par with 22 other states, including Washington and California, that already have health-based air pollution limits.