New report: Oregon fails on diesel

This month, Oregon’s cross-agency team of experts made it very clear: None of our current efforts to reduce diesel pollution have worked, or will work, to meet our state’s goals for protecting human and environmental health.

“Diesel emissions impacts to human health and the environment are not being adequately addressed by the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] or through Toxics Reduction Strategy planning.”

This matter-of-fact statement, and details about Oregon’s diesel problem, are part of a newly updated toxics reduction strategy presented to the Environmental Quality Commission in January 2019. The strategy is designed to work across state agencies, taking a close look at toxic pollution that is a priority for air, land, water, and human health all at the same time.

Diesel pollution is one of the top priorities.

As the report describes, Oregon set a goal 11 years ago to reduce diesel pollution so that it would bring cancer risk below one in a million. Today, we have reduced less than 2% of the pollution we would need to meet that health standard.

It’s not that our toxics reduction plan or clean diesel programs are ineffective at reducing health risks. In fact, the report estimates that agency actions deliver $4.80 in health and environmental benefits for every gallon of diesel that is not burned in an old dirty engine.

It’s just that Oregon hasn’t invested enough in solving the problem. Nor has it put health-based regulations in place to require cleaner diesel engines.

Because diesel pollution looks like a plume of smoke, we think of it as an air pollutant. But the tiniest and most dangerous toxic particles don’t stay in the air. According to the toxics reduction strategy, diesel pollution can:

  • settle from the air into the soil in gardens and agricultural crops
  • be carried by stormwater from land into waterways
  • flow directly from the air into water
  • change water quality to increase metal exposures for aquatic life
  • be taken up into fish and wildlife
  • be breathed in, absorbed through skin, or ingested

The toxics reduction strategy points to diesel as one culprit in the recent die-offs of Coho salmon related to stormwater runoff from roads.

It also describes how black carbon from diesel pollution falls from the air onto Oregon’s snow and ice, causing it to melt faster and change both water quality and quantity.

Diesel is a statewide problem raising cancer risk for the vast majority of our population, but it falls hardest on minority and low-income populations. And what’s the consequence of exposure? According to the report:

  • Diesel exhaust is linked to lung cancer, asthma, bronchitis and neurological disorders
  • Diesel pollution is one of the five most hazardous pollutants for children
  • Childhood exposure results in “more-potent cancer and health impacts” over a lifetime

The toxics reduction strategy suggests modest, voluntary and immediate actions that agencies will take to better understand and reduce diesel pollution. But the report makes it clear: we need to take bigger and bolder action.

You can help.

Join us, and our network of partners and allies, to call for strong action on diesel in the 2019 legislative session.

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