The Oregon Senate unanimously passed a bill that will put tough public health standards in place for air polluters, setting new limits on chemical exhausts based on the risk of cancer and other health ailments.
Senate Bill 1541 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Gov. Kate Brown had supported basing air pollution levels on health effects with her Cleaner Air Oregon initiative, but the manufacturing industry was unhappy with a Department of Environmental Quality advisory committee’s findings and lobbied to defund the program in 2017.
“Industry is stepping up to take the problem of air quality seriously,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, addressing his colleagues. “The phoenix has risen. I urge your aye vote.”
SB 1541 brings the program back from the precipice, but with modestly less stringent standards. Manufacturers wanted safeguards to ensure that state bureaucracies wouldn’t arbitrarily change standards or hew too closely to the liberal environmental lobby.
Environmental groups had opposed detouring from the recommendations of the advisory committee, but without this bill, the entire program would go dormant, and allow polluters to continue without any public health standards for air emissions in Oregon.
“We had to find a balance of public health and viability of industry and not destroying the economy,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton. “This was not an easy compromise on either side.”
Oregon Business & Industry lobbyist Megan Chrisman argued that the original recommendations from the Department of Environmental Quality unfairly singled-out industry when 80 percent of the air pollutants in Oregon are from wood stoves and exhaust from trucks and automobiles.
“While SB 1541 would create new costs on business, it would set reasonable health protective benchmarks and provide regulatory certainty to many important regional employers,” wrote Chrisman.
Mary Peveto from Neighbors for Clean Air said the bill was huge progress over the status quo and did include much of the work that she and other public health advocates had put into the advisory committee over the past two years.
“The hardest message for people to hear right now is that industry actually has had to give a lot since the first draft of SB 1541,” Peveto told The Lund Report. “And they gave it because they believed their constituents are better with clear legal limits to pollution, that they can plan for and begin to work on compliance to. It was clear that DEQ was uncomfortable putting any hard limits into the rules, and frankly, that was something that advocates were equally frustrated with.”
Once operational, regulations will be fully funded by fees paid by polluters. However, SB 1541 includes $824,000 from the general fund in startup costs, out of a budget of $1.6 million this biennium. Roughly $133,000 of the program’s $3.1 million 2019-2021 budget will also come from the general fund. The balance will come from fees leveraged on air quality permit holders.
The funding will cover 10 positions at the Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority, which will implement air toxics rules. DEQ will hire permit writers, an air quality modeler, program coordinator, management and information technology support.
Girod, along with moderate Democratic Sen. Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay and Dembrow, perhaps the Legislature’s staunchest advocate for environmental health, negotiated an agreement in the winter months before the start of the 2018 session.
“I believe the best solutions come from conversations with real people on all sides of an issue,” Roblan said. “The last several months we have been in a number of meetings, along with DEQ and OHA, as well as employers and other groups. Everyone came, I think, with an open mind and an openness to figure out how we can make this work. This is a solution that takes all stakeholders into account and will improve air quality and public health in Oregon.”
Roblan and Girod initially introduced a bill that was unacceptably lenient to Dembrow, and the health standards the bill now puts in place are about halfway between their proposal and the recommendations by the DEQ advisory committee.
The air pollution restrictions for new facilities will match those across the Columbia River in Washington. Standards will also be put in place for existing Oregon polluters, which goes beyond regulations in Washington and California. Dembrow fought off rules that would have allowed more pollution in rural areas. “Rural lives are just as important as urban ones,” he said.
The allowable benchmark for existing facilities is 50 additional cases of cancer per million residents than if the pollution source did not exist and the standard for new facilities is set at 10 additional cases of cancer per million residents. It also establishes a hazard index for non-cancer illnesses and new facilities will not be allowed to increase the risk of non-cancerous diseases above the status quo. The Environmental Quality Commission will be able to tighten the non-cancer standards over time based on public health needs.
“Some news articles and social media posts suggested that this bill weakens existing air quality standards,” Dembrow said. “That is not accurate. In fact, passage of SB 1541 will create, for the first time, health-based air toxics regulations in Oregon.”
Dembrow added that Oregon will be the first state in the nation to consider the totality of potential pollutants being breathed in an area, including diesel and wood smoke in a pilot
project in the Portland metropolitan region. Peveto said this part of the bill is actually much stronger than what the DEQ advisory committee had proposed.
Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].