A judge two weeks ago denied a request from Entek International to bar state officials from telling the company's employees and area residents about plans to monitor air quality around the Lebanon plant.
Linn County Circuit Court Judge Carol Bispham, after considering voluminous documents and hours of arguments, ruled that the state's Department of Environmental Quality had the right to set up air monitors outside the plant — and that state officials "had enough information to support a reasonable belief" that emissions of tricholorethylene, a carcinogenic solvent Entek uses in its manufacturing, "potentially" could be a health threat.
Bispham also found that Entek, although it had suffered adverse publicity in this incident, failed to show that it would suffer "substantial and irreparable harm" if the state had gone through with its plans to notify Lebanon residents about the air monitoring.
The judge's ruling, in which she also noted the state's "strong and enduring policy that public records and governmental activities be open to the public," appears to bring to a close this phase of the drama between Entek and the state.
Representatives from both Entek and the state have met since the issue went into the courts.
Here's what should happen next: The air monitoring stations should be deployed. The state and Entek need to decide what exactly to tell Lebanon residents about the monitoring. And it would behoove the state agencies involved in this case (most notably, the Department of Environmental Quality) to think about lessons learned from this case.
The case is complex, but the key factors are essentially straightforward. Here are the basics:
• By every account, Entek is compliant with all its permits and applicable regulatory standards for TCE.
• State officials note that there are nonregulatory standards and federal health-based thresholds for TCE. Those standards do not have the force of law, but the officials say they can be used to identify potential health threats. (The state's nascent Cleaner Air Oregon initiative is among the efforts aiming to set health-based allowable risk levels for air toxics, including TCE.)
• Recent computer modeling by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies suggests that levels of TCE in the air outside the Entek plant, while still well below the legal and permitted levels, might be higher than some of these nonregulatory standards.
• But the computer modeling does not translate to actual ambient air data, and in some cases might be based on relatively old data: That's why the state was proposing to place the air monitors on private property near the plant. Entek has worked with a consultant, CH2M Hill, on additional modeling and also did some air-monitoring work. Entek said results from that work showed TCE concentrations that were less than suggested by the state work.
• Entek's worries were focused more on the draft communications plan that state officials were proposing to implement soon after an April 6 meeting with the company — a meeting that company officials characterized as an "ambush." Entek worried that releasing information about a possible carcinogen could stoke unnecessary fears and harm the company, especially in the absence of harder data. So it went to court on April 7. As the state continues to work on the Cleaner Air Oregon initiative, there might be a lesson here in how it should approach companies that have been cooperative in the past.
Now that the legal smoke is clearing, it's time to move forward: Let's get those air-monitoring stations placed. As for the communications part of the plan, surely Entek and the state can figure out a strategy that works for all the parties involved. In fact, you know what might be useful in terms of that communications strategy? Additional data, like the information that would be available from those four air-monitoring stations.