Food processors air grievances at Cleaner Air Oregon

Lamb Weston, based in Eagle, Idaho, has announced the purchase of an Australian processor.

PENDLETON, Ore. — While few people attended Tuesday’s public hearing in Pendleton about proposed regulations for industrial air polluters, one industry in particular was on hand to express its displeasure with Cleaner Air Oregon: food processing.

According to the state employment department, food processing makes up 6 percent of overall employment in Umatilla County and a whopping 28 percent in neighboring Morrow County. Food processors accounted for 3,426 jobs between the two counties in 2016, along with $143 million in combined payroll.

But Craig Smith, director of government affairs for the Northwest Food Processors Association, said those companies face another layer of burdensome regulations under the Cleaner Air Oregon rules, spearheaded by Gov. Kate Brown to lower health risks posed by industrial air emissions.

“We don’t like this rule at all,” Smith said. “It’s way too broad, and the cost of the program will be enormous for very little benefit.”

Smith was one of 14 people who attended the hearing Tuesday at the Pendleton Public Library, and half of those were employees of the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Environmental Quality, which are working to develop the rules. Similar meetings were held Nov. 15 in Medford, Nov. 16 in Coos Bay and Nov. 20 in Corvallis, with future dates scheduled in Portland, Eugene, Salem and The Dalles.

Debbie Radie, vice president of operations at Boardman Foods and chairwoman of the Northwest Food Processors Association Board of Directors, was the only person to testify Tuesday, saying the proposed rules are “poorly designed and unworkable.”

Cleaner Air Oregon was established last year in response to toxic air emissions in 2016 Bullseye Glass in southeast Portland. Yet rather than address sources of emissions that DEQ knows to be an issue, Radie said the agency is targeting companies like hers that are already subject to regulation.

“There is no plan in this rule to identify sources of emissions that are not currently permitted,” Radie said. “The only way this rule will reduce emissions is to force companies to curtail or stop production. The level of uncertainty does not create an environment where businesses and communities thrive.”

The draft rules, released Oct. 20, would require companies to report their use of 600 chemicals, including heavy metals and other air pollutants. Facilities would then need to calculate potential health risks to nearby communities, considering what if any health problems may be caused by short- and long-term exposure.

From there, DEQ may require additional steps — such as a risk reduction plan or conditional permit — to mitigate the risk. Keith Johnson, who serves as special assistant to the director of Cleaner Air Oregon, said the goal is to use health-based standards for reducing harmful air toxics.

“A facility that’s in a remote location would be much less risky than a similar one located in the middle of a city or town,” Johnson explained. “Smaller facilities would likely not be impacted because of low risk and low emissions.”

Out of 2,500 businesses with DEQ air quality permits, Johnson said only the 80 highest-risk facilities would be regulated by the program in the first five years.

But in her testimony, Radie said the rule would not be based on verified science and data, but rather by asking already permitted facilities to submit data that would be entered into a “very crude, inaccurate and misleading formula to determine theoretical risk.”

Cleaner Air Oregon also factors the cumulative effects of industrial emissions in a given area, which Radie said may cause some companies with minimal emissions to be dragged into a full-blown risk assessment process just by being near an industrial location.

Boardman Foods, an onion processing plant, is located at the Port of Morrow’s East Beach Industrial Park near Boardman, which includes other value-added processors such as Lamb Weston and Tillamook Cheese.

Smith said the added cost of complying with the program might not force food processors to close their doors, but could make them less competitive moving forward.

“That’s a huge deal,” he said. “Right now, there is a lot of investment being made both by the processors and our suppliers.”

The Oregon Legislature is expected to consider a fee structure for Cleaner Air Oregon in the coming session, and the Environmental Quality Commission may decide to adopt all or part of the rule as early as July 2018.

Recommended for you