Eugene-based environmental advocacy group Beyond Toxics is criticizing the Department of Environmental Quality for the program’s weak stance on certain industrial polluters, such as those in Lane County, and its failure to fully address the state’s climate crisis, particularly in vulnerable communities.
As currently drafted, the program’s emissions caps will not directly affect some of Lane County’s largest industrial polluters because their greenhouse gas emissions fall below its minimum level for regulation.
“It’s very narrow in scope,” says Beyond Toxics’ Climate Action Plan and Policy Manager Grace Brahler of the Climate Protection Program. “The cap that is placed on certain polluters does not follow a reduction aggressive enough to meet our climate and equity needs for the state.”
The program, slated to take effect in 2022, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide in compliance with Gov. Kate Brown’s Executive Order 20-04, which directs the state to reduce carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
However, it does not address toxic co-pollutants — substances that don’t necessarily contribute to climate change but can still cause health problems and environmental harm. Studies conducted by Beyond Toxics have found chemicals like creosote, formaldehyde and ammonia in emissions from industrial plants in west Eugene, where residents have long complained of foul odors, polluted waterways and troubling health problems.
“Even while we’re ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions, we have to also do more to bring down the amount of toxic co-pollutants that these facilities emit,” says Beyond Toxics’ Executive Director Lisa Arkin.
Some of the exempt facilities in west Eugene that have been linked to these co-pollutants include Seneca Sustainable Energy — a wood-fired biomass plant that supplies electricity to EWEB — and J.H. Baxter — a wood-treatment facility that was recently fined by the DEQ for hazardous waste violations and has been accused of causing cancer in the surrounding community.
Carol Lafon has lived for seven years off of Roosevelt Boulevard in west Eugene, about a mile from the J.H. Baxter facility. While she says the air quality has improved since she first arrived, she’ll often wake up early in the morning to a broccoli-like smell that permeates her neighborhood.
She says that during her first few years in the area, the acrid smell of creosote, a by-product of wood-burning linked to asthma and other respiratory conditions, frequently hung in her neighborhood’s air. She says she once stumbled onto a soccer field near J.H. Baxter littered with dead, mummified frogs, and that she lost two of her dogs within months of each other to a rare blood cancer that she believes is linked to pollutants released by the facility.
“We really have to come down on the repeat offenders,” she says. “Either shut them all the way down because they just can’t behave themselves, or force them to be responsible. Because they’re really wrecking this whole area.”
Beyond Toxics has also drawn attention to the relatively short list of polluters directly covered by the proposed program’s emissions caps. It targets 13 of Oregon’s largest stationary polluters — none in Lane County — and 16 fossil fuel supply companies operating in the state, but it exempts significant sources of greenhouse gases and does not set specific reduction goals for the stationary polluters that are covered.
While fuel suppliers would be subject to a declining emissions cap that the DEQ would set each year, each of the 13 stationary polluters covered by the program would be required to come up with their own plans for reducing emissions, which they’d then submit to the DEQ for approval.
“These are sectors and industries that are so different amongst one another in terms of their processes and what’s resulting in emissions, that it really needs a more hands-on approach,” says DEQ Climate Policy Analyst Lauren Slawsky.
Theoretically, facilities exempt from the program could be affected if they buy fuel from one of the covered suppliers, she says. “Ultimately, any fuel users in the state could be indirectly impacted by this regulation,” Slawsky continues. “As long as they’re using fuel and the fuel is regulated.”
But Brahler is skeptical as to whether or not requiring the handful of companies listed in the program to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions will actually benefit the communities most affected by pollution.
“There needs to be a way to measure whether or not this program is promoting clean and healthy communities,” she says. “But right now, there’s a lack of any real assurance that these benefits will actually reach communities disproportionately impacted by climate pollution.”
The Climate Protection Program is still in its rulemaking phase and is open for public comment until Oct. 25. The DEQ’s Office of Greenhouse Gas Emissions will then review the comments, before sending the proposal to the Environmental Quality Commission for approval.