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Human Health Put At Risk In Oregon By Air Pollution Permit Backlog: Audit

A backlog of outdated air pollution permits is endangering public health and frustrating business owners, according to a newly released audit by the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.

About 40 percent of air quality permits for major industrial sources of pollution are overdue for renewal by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, according to the audit. Oregon is also behind on timely inspections for air quality permits, but it doesn’t know by how much: the agency has no system to track when facilities are due for inspection, according to the audit.

“Untimely permits, combined with a current backlog of inspections, endanger the state’s air quality and the health of Oregonians,” auditors wrote. “For example, when DEQ does not issue permit renewals on time, businesses may not provide DEQ with data showing they are complying with new or updated rules.”

DEQ issues permits under the Clean Air Act to businesses and municipalities. These permits allow them to emit certain amounts of pollution into the air. A backlog for the approval of these permits forces some businesses to wait before they can operate. It leaves others frustrated by  uncertainty about how strictly they will be regulated. It also prevents state regulators from being fully informed about potential air-quality problems.

“The findings described in this audit report illuminate and validate challenges that the agency has increasingly experienced over the last decade,” DEQ Director Richard Whitman wrote in response to the audit.

Whitman said staff restructuring within DEQ and budget problems have hindered the agency's ability to clear the backlog. Last year, the legislature denied a proposed fee increase on air polluters that would have helped pay for permit writers. Whitman said the agency is working to implement the audit's recommendations to fill vacancies, improve inspection tracking and determine appropriate staffing levels for its permit departments. 

DEQ has acknowledged struggles with backlogs in its air and water quality programs for years. The agency’s backlog of outdated water quality permits is the second-longest of any state in the country.

Those stem mostly from budget-related staff cuts and vacancies. Last year, DEQ had 250 fewer employees on the job than it did in 2001.

Some air quality permits in Oregon will carry additional requirements for companies and municipalities to meet. That is a result of DEQ's updated clean air rules intended to better protect human health.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has indicated plans to ease the federal permitting process for businesses.

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Climate Change Is Making Smoky, Unhealthy Air More Common

On Wednesday, as smoke blotted out the sun across the city of Portland, about a dozen people were hiding out from the smoky heat in the air conditioned Hollywood Senior Center – one of the county's designated cooling centers for those needing relief on the hottest days of the year.

Climate Change Is Making Smoky, Unhealthy Air More Common

On Wednesday, as smoke blotted out the sun across the city of Portland, about a dozen people were hiding out from the smoky heat in the air conditioned Hollywood Senior Center – one of the county's designated cooling centers for those needing relief on the hottest days of the year.

Wearing an electronic air filter around her neck, Jennifer Young, who works at the center, flipped on the larger, high-efficiency particulate  filter she brought from home to purify her work-space air.

Explore our 'Symptoms of Climate Change' series to learn more about the impacts of a warming planet on human health.

As soon as smoke from the Eagle Creek fire started flowing into the city from the Columbia River Gorge, Young, who has asthma, felt it in her lungs.

“I’m really short of breath," she said. "I noticed it this morning. I was debating whether or not to come to work.”

So, even inside the cooling center, she was taking extra precautions because the particles in wildfire smoke are irritants that can trigger an asthma attack.

 

This summer, wildfire smoke has at times blanketed much of the West, with ash falling from the skies. The resulting unhealthy air quality is dangerous for people with lung and heart problems.

Young spent a lot of her childhood summers in the hospital when smoke from nearby field burning would close down her airways. This week, she’s avoided any hospital visits, but she has had to use her inhaler to help her breathe.

"My asthma unfortunately is not well controlled and I have a lot of lung damage because of that," she said. "Any time the air gets bad I’m going to feel it.”

A big question for people like Young is how much more bad air they can expect in the future with climate change.

Brendon Haggerty, who tracks the health impacts of climate change for Oregon's Multnomah County, said as summers get hotter and drier, research shows fire seasons and the smoke that comes along with them are likely to linger longer.

"Like a lot of people, I look outside and I wonder if every summer is going to be like this, and I think the signs are pointing more and more toward yes — to some extent," he said. "We can expect to have to deal with this more and more often as the climate continues to change."

That means more bad air days and more health risks for people with asthma and heart disease.

 

We’ve already seen an increase in the number of acres burned and the length of the fire season, Haggerty said.

“Since the 1980s it’s more than doubled," he said. "So we’re now over a three- maybe four-month fire season whereas when my dad was young it was less than a month.”

The latest national climate assessment projects the number of acres burned by wildfires will quadruple in the next 70 years.

"So, this summer feels like a lot, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to have four times as much fire in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

For people with asthma, it could mean some very unhealthy summers.

Matt Hoffman, who works on air quality issues for Multnomah County, said he knows the feeling of waking up to wildfire smoke all to well.

"I have asthma myself, and on days like this when I wake up I can feel the tightness in my chest," he said. “We’ve spent months now under the haze of smoky skies, and Portland hasn’t had it that bad.”

Across the Northwest, some communities have faced unhealthy air every day for much of the summer.

 

"It moves beyond that risk of my eyes hurt today or I might be having a hard time breathing today when it becomes a third or a fourth of the year that we have to experience these types of conditions,” he said.

This week, the number of asthma-related hospital visits across the state of Oregon jumped 24 percent, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Haggerty says in the future, people may have to find ways to clear smoke-filled air.

"The good news is we’ll get better at that," he said. "We’ll get better indoor air filtration. We’ll get better air conditioning systems. We’ll plant trees in ways that protect us. But when I look outside I worry about what it will be like in the future.”

He hopes the ash falling from the sky might lead more people to consider driving less and cutting back their personal contributions to climate change.

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Second Portland Glass-Maker Suspends Use Of Cadmium

A second glass-making company in Portland has voluntarily suspended its use of cadmium in response to tests showing elevated levels of the metal in nearby moss.

Uroboros Glass in North Portland announced Thursday it would stop making red, yellow and orange glass colors because they rely on the use of cadmium, a heavy metal that can raise the risk of lung cancer at elevated levels of exposure.

The announcement followed the release of a new map of elevated levels of cadmium in Portland. The map showed one hot spot around Southeast 22nd and Powell, near the Bullseye Glass facility, and a second hot spot near the Fremont Bridge in North Portland, not far from Uroboros Glass on North Kerby.

 

Bullseye Glass suspended its use of cadmium and arsenic last week after health and environmental officials announced test results showing elevated levels of both pollutants in the area. The areas were identified through a study that tested metals in moss around the city in an effort to correlate air pollution levels with the levels detected in moss.

"These moss tests are news to us and certainly troubling given how close this hot spot is to Uroboros, and our history of using Cadmium for red, orange and yellow glass colors," Uroboros President Eric Lovell said in a letter released Monday. "Therefore, we have decided to suspend production of these colors until there is time to learn more about whether or not we have any hazardous emissions from our process."

Air quality manager David Monro said the Department of Environmental Quality is planning to deploy additional air testing devices to help the Oregon Health Authority determine the health risks associated with elevated metals in the air. The agency is also looking at sampling soil around the areas where the moss tests detected elevated metals.One air monitor is going to go near the CCLC at Fred Meyer daycare facility in Southeast Portland. Other air monitor locations are yet to be determined.The DEQ map of areas with cadmium levels above the health benchmark covers a large swath of Portland. Monro said that's because there are other sources of cadmium around the city, including diesel emissions from trains. Based on the results of the moss tests, DEQ placed an air testing device near the hot spot in Southeast Portland. The results showed a 30-day average level of arsenic at around 150 times healthy levels and cadmium levels at about 50 times the state's health benchmark for ambient air."When we've monitored in the past, we'd refer to high levels of cadmium at about 6, maybe 10 times our ambient benchmark concentrations," Monro said. "So now we get levels and we say 'high levels,' but it's really an order of magnitude or two higher. This is kind of a scale change."Monro said he investigated the pollution controls at Bullseye Glass and found the company to be in full compliance with its permit. He affirmed that means current regulations for small glass-making facilities are allowing these companies to release unhealthy levels of metals.According to David Farrer, toxicologist with Oregon Health Authority, exposure to elevated levels of arsenic raises the health risks of bladder, skin and lung cancers, and can also impair brain development over time. Increased exposure to cadmium can raise the risk of lung cancer and can damage the kidneys. Farrer said the levels detected in Southeast Portland raise the cancer risk from one cancer case in a million people to one in 10,000 people. "Which is still low," he said. "But definitely higher than we think is acceptable."

Multnomah County Health Department is hosting a community open house to address the issue from 5 pm to 9 pm Tuesday at the Cleveland High School cafeteria, 3400 SE 26th Ave., in Portland.

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Oregon Regulators Allowed Unlicensed Pesticide Spray on State Forest

Officials with the Oregon Department of Forestry knew Applebee Aviation had lost its pesticide license before they let the company spray weed killer over 800 acres of state and private land.

This failure to stop a pesticide sprayer after suspending its license is the latest example of Oregon’s inability to prevent problematic forest pesticide applications. The state agencies that regulate the practice have been under increased scrutiny from media, environmentalists and lawmakers over the past two years after a string of complaints about exposure from aerial pesticide spraying.

State foresters and private timber companies use helicopters to spray pesticides on recently logged land to kill vegetation that would compete with  newly planted trees. Many environmentalists oppose the practice -- they tried and failed to push comprehensive reforms through the Oregon legislation last year. But one sprayer in particular has drawn the ire of concerned citizens and bureaucrats alike.

Applebee Aviation, based in Banks, Oregon, lost its license to spray pesticides commercially in Oregon on Sept. 25 after the state investigated a former truck driver’s complaint about chemical exposure and found several violations of worker protection laws. It was one of 15 complaints against Applebee since 2010 -- more than any other chemical applicator, according to state data.

Owner Michael Applebee directed his employees to disregard the suspension, according to state investigators. That prompted the Department of Agriculture to seek a temporary restraining order against the company.

Applebee did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously said his company has been “treated unfairly” and called himself a scapegoat.

In the 16 days between the license suspension and the restraining order, Applebee pilots illegally sprayed 16 different parcels of forest. Two of those were on public lands overseen by the state Department of Forestry.

How Applebee was able to conduct those illegal herbicide applications has yet to be explained. Oregon’s agriculture and forestry agencies have declined multiple requests for interviews about Applebee, citing ongoing litigation. But emails and documents released under Oregon’s public records law indicate state forestry officials did not immediately notify field staff or Applebee clients about the suspension, a step that could have prevented the illegal spraying.

In its enforcement notice to Applebee last month, the Oregon Department of Agriculture stressed the importance of preventing further unlicensed spraying. Applications without accountability “threaten the health of workers and of the public, the efficacy and credibility of Oregon’s pesticide licensing program, and the public’s trust in the responsibility of commercial pesticide operators and applicators,” investigators wrote.

Oregon’s agricultural and forestry agencies, along with others, typically work together in forest pesticide investigations. In 2015 Applebee won two contracts from the Department of Forestry. Both began after the state initiated its investigation of the company. Forestry officials have said previously that Applebee, while under investigation, was “assumed innocent until proven guilty.”

On Sept. 25, the state finished the investigation. The Department of Agriculture suspended Applebee’s license that afternoon and informed the Department of Forestry by phone soon after.  But earlier that same day, Department of Forestry staff watched an Applebee pilot spray chemicals on the Elliott State Forest on Oregon’s South Coast.

Emails show Applebee was the only bidder on that contract, and some forestry staff had concerns about the outfit ahead of time.

“Have you worked with Applebee?” one asked.

“I think they have more experience now,” another replied. “I will let you know after we are done if there are thing you need to watch for, or you can let me know if they work for you before I get them.”

 

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The application later prompted a complaint more than a month after the incident from two goat farmers who live a quarter-mile from the site. They said they worried residue from herbicides could have tainted their medical marijuana plants or endangered an inmate work crew working in the forest several weeks later.

“There was an ongoing investigation into this company, and for them to still use it? It's super irritating,” said Richard Melton, who filed the complaint along with his partner Nicole Zenovitch.

Staff in the regional forestry office began to worry when they saw a news article about Applebee’s license suspension.

“This was our contractor?” one asked in an email.

“Yes” was the reply.

 

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By Sept. 26, the day after Applebee’s license suspension, when its spraying became be illegal, the Department of Forestry still had not informed its field staff.

That morning, the department’s Astoria district forester Charlie Moyer watched an Applebee pilot spray chemicals across two swaths of state forest totaling 71 acres. Those were the final two applications under a reforestation contract worth $61,597, according to state records.

“We finished up today, a job well done,” Moyer wrote to Applebee Aviation operations manager Warren Howe, just before noon on Sept 26. He later told Forestry’s staff he found no issues with the application.

More than a week passed before he knew anything had gone wrong.

A telling exchange on Oct. 7 indicates Department of Forestry administrators waited until that day -- several days after the news was widely reported in the media -- to send an email to its field offices about Applebee’s license suspension.

On Oct. 7, just after 11 a.m., Lisa Arkin of the anti-pesticide group Beyond Toxics sent an email to agriculture and forestry officials asking why Applebee Aviation was still listed on upcoming forestry jobs. Arkin copied several state legislators and the governor’s office on the message.

“It is currently illegal for Applebee Aviation to spray in the State of Oregon, is it not? How is ODF addressing this inconsistency?” Arkin wrote. She also asked for “proof that this situation is being addressed in a timely fashion.”

“It doesn’t seem like the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” Arkin later said in a phone interview.

 

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At 2:40 p.m., Arkin got a reply from Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Lisa Hanson, who said her staff informed forestry administrators via phone the same day they suspended Applebee’s license. The email does not mention informing the federal Bureau of Land Management, which also allowed Applebee to spray herbicides on public land after its license suspension.

 

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At 3:42 p.m, the forestry agency’s Private Forests Division Chief Peter Daugherty sent an email to agency field staff about the license suspension. He directed them to check for Applebee in state contracts and notifications for spraying on private land to ensure no illegal applications occur.

 

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At 5:56 p.m., Daugherty responded to Arkin and told her the forestry agency sent notice to field staff and was searching all notifications of forest activities involving Applebee’s pesticide spraying.

 

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“We share your concern about protecting natural resources. We are also committed to coordinating efforts with other state agencies,” he wrote.

The same day of that email exchange, Department of Forestry staff compiled a list of notifications about private forest  herbicide spraying that involved Applebee Aviation. Because the dates on forestry notifications range up to six months -- a window that has complicated several previous investigations -- emails show Department of Forestry staff members were initially unsure which jobs had not already been completed.

Two days after that exchange, the agency opened an investigation of Applebee Aviation’s illegal Sept. 26 herbicide application on state lands, according to state documents.

When asked to verify the timing of events or whether Oregon Department of Forestry field staff had been notified of the license suspension via phone or other means not in public records sooner than Oct. 7, spokesman Ken Armstrong said the agency could not respond to the question. He cited advice from the Oregon Department of Justice not to comment on pending litigation.

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