From heavy metals emitted by art glass factories in Portland to fluoride compounds and glass fibers coming out of the stacks at Hollingsworth & Vose in Corvallis, Oregonians are waking up to the potential health risks posed by industrial air pollution — but solving the problem will require grass-roots action.
That was the message delivered by a panel of speakers Tuesday night at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library hosted by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Last spring, Gov. Kate Brown launched a statewide regulatory reform effort dubbed Cleaner Air Oregon in response to revelations that factories making colored glass in Portland had been emitting potentially dangerous levels of cadmium and arsenic for decades under permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Local environmental activist Marilyn Koenitzer drew a parallel between that case and the situation at Hollingsworth & Vose, a south Corvallis glass fiber plant that operated for nearly 20 years under the wrong class of permit before DEQ determined it was exceeding its allowed levels of fluoride and carbon monoxide. Neighbors of the plant, which sits on the edge of a residential district, also have raised concerns about the particulate matter emitted by H&V.
Koenitzer, the founder of Clean Corvallis Air, said both situations are symptoms of a larger and more troubling issue.
“Weak administration of the DEQ over many years was the root of the problem,” she said, adding that the agency has been “systematically underfunded.”
H&V has been allowed to continue operating while it applies for a new permit, which Koenitzer said would likely include higher allowed levels of some pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, greenhouse gases and fine particulates. She said particulate levels are especially concerning because the public doesn’t have data about the amount of glass fibers in the air around the plant.
“How many of you have heard that there’s nothing but steam coming out of the stacks?” she asked the audience. “That is an urban myth perpetrated by the company. If they were putting out only steam, they wouldn’t need a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality.”
Oregon State University toxicologist Diana Rohlman talked about the potential health effects of air pollution, from increased asthma rates to elevated risk of heart disease, stroke, serious respiratory problems and premature death. Fine particulates — airborne solids less than 2.5 microns in diameter, about 1/20 the width of a human hair — are of particular concern because they can be inhaled deep inside the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
To try to get a handle on particulate levels around the H&V plant, Rohlman said, she and a colleague set up four continuous-read air monitors last week in south Corvallis. While the type of monitors being used won’t determine the composition of the particles in the air, they should provide baseline information on concentrations of coarse and fine particulate matter over different time horizons.
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“What we’re hoping to do is monitor for several months,” she said.
The final speaker of the evening was Lisa Arkin, the executive director of Beyond Toxics, a Eugene-based nonprofit that addresses a wide range of environmental issues. Like Rohlman, she serves on the Cleaner Air Oregon Advisory Committee.
Arkin said the committee is trying to create a new framework for environmental regulation that would put public health before corporate profits.
“We keep talking about moving toward a health-based policy,” she said. “(But) we’re struggling because Oregon has never regulated anything on the basis of health — it’s always been a cost-benefit analysis.”
She called for tougher regulations that would require better monitoring and public reporting of toxic air emissions, as well as evaluation of the cumulative and combined effects of the myriad industrial pollutants entering the atmosphere.
“We need this more than ever now because our federal government is backing away from environmental regulation,” Arkin said. “We believe that everyone has a right to know what is in the air they breathe.”
She noted that Eugene has a “community right to know” program that requires local polluters to submit detailed reports of their emissions to the local fire marshal’s office, which then makes the data available to the public. A measure recently introduced in the Legislature — House Bill 2669 — would allow other Oregon cities to do the same thing, and she urged Corvallis residents to support it.
Asked what local residents could do to get some answers to their concerns about potential health risks in the air they breathe, Arkin urged them to keep pushing for stronger action by state environmental regulators.
“You should call the DEQ,” she said. “Right now the focus is on Portland because they’re the noisiest. You can be noisy.”