A vocal opponent of AmeriTies West and the creosote compounds it is permitted to release said of a proposed new air quality rule, “If Cleaner Air Oregon was made for anything, it was made for the city of The Dalles.”
Kristina Cronkright spoke at the Dec. 14 hearing in The Dalles on the proposed reform to air quality laws called Cleaner Air Oregon.
The state has recognized that a gap exists in air quality regulations that allows companies to operate legally within permitted limits, but still emit pollution that can be harmful to neighbors.
Cleaner Air Oregon would require companies to report 600 types of pollutants to air regulators, and the state would assess risk based on a number of factors, including dispersion patterns and how many people live nearby.
Companies would have to act if the air toxics they emit exceed established health risk action levels. Twenty-two other states have similar health-based rules.
The last of nine public hearings on the proposed reform was held in The Dalles last week. AmeriTies West, the railroad tie plant on the east side of The Dalles that has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years by neighbors who say the plant’s emissions have sickened them, was the chief topic for those who offered testimony.
The plant uses creosote to treat wood railroad ties. Creosote components include naphthalene, a compound classified as a possible human carcinogen.
Air quality tests have shown levels that were far from posing immediate health risks, but are concerning for long-term health, DEQ officials said earlier.
The plant, however, is well below its permitted annual emission of 39 tons a year of volatile organic compounds, which include naphthalene.
Results from air quality testing in the summer are due in a few weeks.
Officials said they didn’t know yet if AmeriTies would be one of the 80 facilities that the state wants to work with in the first five years to bring down air toxics levels.
They will be chosen based on health risk, nearby population, and what percentage of residents are low income, minority and children.
The new rules would lower health risks from air toxics, meaning fewer health problems.
Rachel Najjar testified, “You and I both know that AmeriTies needs to be in the top five of the top 80 facilities with the highest health risk.”
The Oregon legislature first has to agree to implement the reform when it convenes early next year. If it is approved, fees generating about $2.5 million would kick in on facilities requiring air quality permits, with the fee level based on the level of risk to human health. About 11 people would be hired to implement the work.
Keith Johnson, special assistant to the director of the Department of Environmental Quality for the Clean Air Oregon initiative, said “the reason we’re here is because we know communities all over Oregon are struggling with air toxicity.”
The goal is to provide a better, consistent way to address issues.
The reform effort was prompted by complaints about a Portland glass company called Bullseye Glass.
Current rules don’t cover all air toxics, or even all facilities, and they don’t require an assessment of how air toxics affect human health. Air toxics are chemicals emitted into the air that could cause health problems.
In some cases, said hearings officer Bob Schwartz, with the DEQ in The Dalles, “We don’t know exactly what’s emitted.”
Companies would need to report emissions of up to 600 air toxins, assess the known potential health risks, and then compare emissions to known risk levels for 260 chemicals, he said.
Factors that would go into a risk assessment for a facility would include dispersion factors such as how tall its emission stacks are and where the wind blows, how many people live nearby, and how many of those are children or low income, for example. If the risk is deemed above the actionable level, then steps must be taken to reduce the risk.
Risks assessed include both cancer risk and non-cancer risk. Companies are allowed to choose the best way for them to reduce emissions, he said. That could range from choosing different products to changing how they operate to installing controls.
If they are already using the best available controls, they can receive conditional permits to operate as is.
Companies could also argue a hardship case. “They could make the case, ‘That’s too hard, that could put me out of business,” said Jill Inahara, an environmental engineer with DEQ.
Any firm that makes that claim would have to submit audited financials, including from its parent company.
Regulators could give hardship companies more time to comply, based on certain conditions.
The reforms would regulate pollutions based on severity and certainty of risk.
The rules are designed to protect communities from unsafe emissions levels, to protect the most vulnerable populations.
Low income and minority populations tend to live closest to polluting facilities, Schwartz said.
Those most vulnerable would include children and older people.
A new attempt in this proposed reform is to look at cumulative risk from multiple points of air toxics, such as multiple facilities located near each other.
It is complex and something that has never been tried in the U.S.
Vehicle emissions and wood stove emissions would not be considered part of the risk.
Now, some 2,600 businesses in Oregon have air quality permits. Of those, 2,200 are on a general basic permit, for places like gas stations and dry cleaners.
The other 400 are more complex. All will get ranked in terms of air toxicity emissions.
Facilities will be self-reporting types and levels of pollutants. While some in the audience questioned the efficacy of allowing self-reporting, Inahara said state inspectors come back and double-check, and it’s a crime to falsify reports.
“They cannot lie,” she said.
“But they can poison us,” a man responded.
Several people spoke to the ill effects on their families from living by the AmeriTies plant. The plant is well below its maximum allowable limits for emitting pollutants.
The plant uses creosote as a wood preservative to treat railroad ties.
Najjar said she had to move away because her family became so sick from the creosote. Once they moved, their health problems went away.
“It’s time to focus on the health risk that AmeriTies poses to The Dalles. It’s not our job to prove that risk to you, it’s your job to prevent it. And it’s AmeriTies job to spend the money to ensure that their company is not a threat to the community,” Najjar said.
“Of course we don’t want people to lose their jobs and I assure you that they won’t, if Union Pacific takes the proper course of action,” she said. The railroad ties treated at AmeriTies are used by UP.
Later, she said, “There should be no [permit] renewal and no new permits unless they can prove there is no risk to the public.”
Tiffany Woodside said her nose is raw most of the time, it’s hard to get oxygen and “I have very few blood cells left.”
She said her exposure to creosote is “life altering.” She said members of her family have cancer and multiple sclerosis. She said, “I do think jobs are important, but not at the expense of our lives.”
She said she didn’t know what was more frustrating, having health issues for years and not knowing what was causing them, or finally learning what it was and then not having changes made.
“I’m frustrated because there’s nowhere to turn. AmeriTies doesn’t answer my calls. DEQ says they have a permit to poison us,” she said. “I feel stuck, I feel poisoned and I feel like nobody is listening.”
Steve Curley said, “I pay my taxes. Aren’t I allowed to have fresh air to breathe instead of mothballs? It’s ridiculous.”
AmeriTies changed its recipe last December to one that has just half the naphthalene in it, but Curley said, for him, “Nothing’s changed.”
He said, “I’m all about jobs, but at what expense?”
He said he hoped there were some teeth in the Cleaner Air Oregon reform. “There’s got to be something done, it’s not good for humans.”
Joel Kabakov said, “I don’t care about epidemiologic studies, I don’t care about population studies. This is present in my grandchildren now.” They have broken out with skin conditions, he said.
Cronkright said she had to break her lease to move to another part of town because she began getting migraines and was lethargic. She has filed over 100 odor complaints to DEQ.
She said the “small number of plant workers continue to drive fear into the heart of the citizens who think that The Dalles still relies heavily on the plant for jobs.”
She said anybody who complains about AmeriTies on social media is “bullied, intimidated, alienated or told to move.”
She said people are afraid if they complain the plant would close, “when in all reality, their complaints could force the appropriate parties to spend the money necessary to implement odor control measures.”
She was critical of a state process that allowed citizens to complain of “nuisance odors” but did not recognize that they were also hazardous to health.
“The Oregon Health Authority tells us that because we dislike a particular odor, that our brain causes symptoms such as migraine, dizziness, or stomach problems. As a migraine sufferer, I am deeply offended by this stance, as if it were smelly socks or a dairy farm I was complaining about.”
She said she and her family have become sick since moving here. “We all have multiple chemical sensitivity and navigating the world is totally different now.”
She said they can’t be around scented products now, since they have the same compounds as creosote.