041317-adh-nws-Entek Aerial01-my (copy) (copy)

Entek International's campus, in northwest Lebanon, has a permit to release up to 127 tons of the solvent trichloroethylene annually, but releases less than 70 tons. Computer modeling recently indicated a possible spike in TCE emissions. 

It's been a rough ride lately for Gov. Kate Brown's nascent Cleaner Air Oregon program, an attempt to rework regulations governing the amount of toxins polluters can release into the air.

First, legislators — alarmed in part by the treatment state regulators gave to Lebanon's Entek International earlier this year — declined to fund work to implement new rules Brown proposed after the 2016 Bullseye Glass incident in Portland.

Most recently, state regulators said they were rolling back the proposed regulations themselves, in response to comments from a panel of environmental and business representatives. Business advocates cheered the state move; they have said the proposed rules were too restrictive. But environment advocates noted that the revised rules would allow polluters to create more cancer risk.

A story in The Oregonian also noted that the proposed rules include a loophole: It would allow the director of the Department of Environmental Quality to exempt some of the state's biggest polluters from requirements to nearly eliminate the health risks from their emissions. Those businesses could apply for the exemption if they installed some pollution controls and consulted with the Oregon Health Authority and local politicians.

The loophole seems to be a direct response to the state's ham-handed treatment of Entek earlier this year. Here's a quick reminder about the Entek incident:

Entek uses tricholorethylene (TCE), a carcinogenic solvent, in its manufacturing process. The company is compliant with all its permits and applicable regulatory standards from TCE.

State officials, however, have taken note of 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. Computer modeling by government 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. (The company has paid for its own computer modeling and some air-monitoring work, which concluded that the emissions are less than suggested in the initial modeling.)

The state proposed placing four air monitors on private property near the plant to gather actual data. Entek officials didn't have much of an issue with that. But they did worry about the state's intention to roll out a communications plan about the matter to the Lebanon community the day after an April 6 meeting with Entek. In particular, the company worried that releasing information about a possible carcinogen could stoke unnecessary fears and harm the company.

The company went to court and won an unprecedented restraining order preventing the state from putting the communications plan into effect. A few weeks later, a judge swept away the restraining order, but the mess caught the attention of legislators and gave new ammunition to business lobbyists seeking to roll back the Cleaner Air Oregon initiative.

In the meantime, the four air monitors that would help offer valuable data about Entek emissions had not been installed as of last week, The Oregonian reported.

And that's a shame. Regardless of what happens now to the Cleaner Air Act program (it's unclear at this point how much political capital Brown is willing to spend to push the program forward), the data those monitors would collect could help bring this Entek matter to a conclusion. And it's not as if Lebanon residents are completely in the dark about the matter: The various court documents filed in the battle over the restraining order offered way more detail about the issue than the state would have released in its communications plan.

The Cleaner Air Oregon proposal appears to have some substantial speed bumps. But that shouldn't prevent Lebanon residents from being able to access current and accurate information about the air they breathe. (mm)

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