What’s next for air toxic controls?

This February 2018 Oregon state legislators passed a bill that ensures Cleaner Air Oregon—a critical program to control toxic air pollution—will move forward. But will the program protect public health? There’s more work to be done. Here’s the story of Cleaner Air Oregon so far:

Two years ago, when high levels of toxic heavy metals were discovered in Portland neighborhoods, dangerous air pollution became impossible to ignore: Oregon’s air toxics controls needed an overhaul. Under a directive from Governor Kate Brown, our health and environmental agencies embarked on a robust public process to develop a plan to regulate toxic air emissions from industry—with a greater understanding of what these emissions mean for public health.

But after years of budget cuts and chronic under-funding, Oregon’s air quality program has had barely enough resources to operate, as highlighted in a state audit this year. In order to turn this new Cleaner Air Oregon program into action, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) needed the state legislature to grant them authority to charge industry reasonable fees to fund the program. During the 2017 legislative session, powerful industry lobbyists blocked them from gaining this authority.

In 2018, legislators were presented a choice. One bill would have allowed Cleaner Air Oregon to proceed with industry fees. The other would have allowed such fees—but only if industry were guaranteed some restrictions on the program. Our public health champions faced a choice: negotiate a deal that could withstand the pressure of industry lobbyists or risk losing funding altogether.

After years of work from experts and stakeholders, after dozens of public meetings and thousands of public comments, Cleaner Air Oregon is due to be finalized this summer. But without funding, the entire program would simply stall.

With very little time to spare in a month-long legislative session, Sen. Michael Dembrow (SE Portland) worked with Sen. Fred Girod (Stayton) and industrial interests on a deal.

Once signed by the governor, DEQ will be able to charge industry fees for this program to control toxic air pollution. But as a compromise, the law sets “risk action levels” that will limit DEQ’s ability to take action unless a threshold of health risk is reached. Other compromises in the bill undermine processes that would ensure that neighbors are involved and informed in decision-making that affects their health.

Oregon Environmental Council testified on the bill, urging lawmakers to grant authority to fund the Cleaner Air Oregon with fees that hold industry responsible. We also asked legislators to reject the bill that coupled funding with rules that weaken the program. We argued that the best way to truly protect human health—and the best investment in healthy communities and a strong economy—is to invest in public process, community involvement, and the agency resources necessary to effectively regulate toxic air pollution. By coupling funding to program rules, our experts are hamstrung in responding to public insight, emerging science, and other factors that affect human health.

At the end of the day, we joined Neighbors for Clean Air in voicing support for the compromise brokered by Oregon’s legislators because without funding the program would never move forward. Funding for the program, and for DEQ, is absolutely critical to Oregon’s health and economy, and we applaud our legislators for understanding that.

We know that the bill, as passed, will not fully deliver the health protections that Oregonians deserve. In fact, the provisions in the bill make it all the more critical that advocates continue to work together, and with communities, to ensure that the Cleaner Air Oregon program truly results in healthier communities. We must insist on transparency, engagement, and public involvement as the Cleaner Air Oregon process continues. We can’t declare victory until Oregon truly recognizes the value of investing in public health as a priority, and honors processes that give people the right to meaningful involvement in decisions that affect them.

The good news is that the Cleaner Air Oregon program will move forward. DEQ will have a source of funding necessary to deliver better information on health risks, and to hold industry accountable for reducing those risks. There will soon be more opportunities for the public to weigh in on the rules of the program. But it will take vigilance, strong advocacy and united voices to ensure that the program keeps its promise to reduce health risks and deliver cleaner air.

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