This editorial was originally published in the Oregonian on April 24:
Entek International, a manufacturing firm and longtime employer in Lebanon, uses the nasty chemical trichloroethylene in its processes. It does so carefully, however, having worked consistently over the years to reclaim and contain the chemical in all its forms and falling well below use limits established by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
But that makes little difference when Oregon regulators, bent on curbing toxic air emissions statewide, estimated the air near Entek's facility likely contains high ambient concentrations of TCE and should be gauged definitively.false
Exposure to the chemical has been linked to heart abnormalities in newborns and cancer. Breathing air tainted with TCE could be a serious public health threat — a matter separate from a factory's compliance with state environmental regulations. So the state's environment agency decided, correctly, to set up monitoring stations along Hansard Avenue in Lebanon to collect air samples, shifting its work from computer modeling to real measurement.
Entek agreed. But things quickly went off the rails as state officials, supported by an epidemiologist and toxicologist from the Oregon Health Authority, told Entek a news release would explain the air-testing project to Entek employees and the surrounding community. Rationally, Entek leaders wanted to know how, in the event of high TCE levels downwind, it might possibly be held to a higher emissions standard in the absence of a higher emissions standard. And they wanted to know how it was fair play to withstand what would surely be panic from its employees and neighbors, especially in the event emission levels turned out to be safe.
Entek took its concerns to Linn County Court and obtained an astonishing thing: a judge's gag order against the DEQ blocking it from discussing its Entek probe, a matter of public concern by a public agency, with the public. On April 21, Rob Davis of The Oregonian/OregonLive reported that Entek enjoyed support in its action from the industry group Associated Oregon Industries.
Several things are wrong here.
The state's stepped-up effort to control toxic emissions arrives under the banner of a program called Cleaner Air Oregon and championed by Gov. Kate Brown following the air toxics scare posed in Portland last year by glass-making facilities. If overdue, Cleaner Air Oregon is spot-on in its purposes: to make Oregon's air safer to breathe. And nobody wishes otherwise, least of all those industries whose fortunes are tied to the goodwill of their workforce and neighbors.
But Oregon faces a 10-month gap, minimally, before it will have new regulations in place that set limits to the use of some of more than 200 potentially problematic chemicals, any number of them possibly sullying the air people breathe. As a result, the DEQ, under the new directorship of Richard Whitman, must move purposely forward without scaring Oregon's valuable businesses into retreat — or straight into the courtroom.
Meanwhile, the environment and health agencies involved should tread carefully in their zeal to conduct extensive public outreach as steps are taken that might or might not unmask an "imminent" health threat. In the event of such a threat declaration, Oregon statutes give the agencies the authority to take actions to limit chemical releases — even in the absence of regulatory limits — and that's the right time for extensive public outreach.false
But treading carefully does not mean hiding from the public data collection that's underway. Instead, it means that an agency's actions should be accurately explained to anyone asking but not be monumentalized to such an extent it produces the Entek outcome.
Documents obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board show that no fewer than 15 specialists from both the environment and health agencies were present, with seven others on the phone, at a March 29 meeting in Salem to review the Entek situation. Separately, a seven-page "Communications Plan" on the Entek situation states the "core message" of state agencies to be this: "Health experts don't know if levels of emissions from Entek are putting people at risk, but recent computer models show it is possible.
Regulators are testing the air near Entek to find out. State agencies will take action to reduce any risk to Entek workers and neighbors." This is hardly scare material. But with a small army behind it, and everyone aping the same talking point, it becomes scary.
The 10 months leading up to the adoption in early 2018 of new regulations will be critical to the success of Cleaner Air Oregon.
It seems clear from the Entek jam, however, that Oregon officials seek to re-establish trust with the public following acrimony in the Portland glass-maker case. And that's wise. But as Oregon rises from an historically passive approach to environmental regulation, which put it in the bottom half of all states in regulating air toxics, officials must avoid overcorrection and industries collaborate.
Everybody wants clean air. The public can be trusted to handle the truth as Oregon takes one understated step at a time to achieve it. So, too, can the Enteks of the world.