The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality announced news last week that it hoped would please Hayden Island residents who have been inundated with toxic odors that have been making them sick and their daily activities almost unbearable for several years. But at a meeting at the Red Lion Hotel on the island, the residents greeted the news with mostly skepticism and rage.
DEQ officials said one of the area's two major polluters, an oil recycling plant known as Oil Re-refining Co. (ORRCO), had agreed on June 5 to install new air-pollution control equipment that they said would reduce its toxic vapor emissions by two-thirds. In December, another nearby oil recycling company, American Petroleum Environmental Services (APES), signed a similar agreement to install pollution-control equipment.
But many of the 50 residents in attendance were clearly not ready to stand up and cheer.
"These people need a huge improvement to make their lives acceptable," observed area resident Bob Lowe.
"I hope I never hear anyone from DEQ call this an odor problem," said Nikki Charlton, another resident. "This is our health. I wake up at 4:30 a.m. with a noxious odor that makes me gag."
"We were being engulfed by their toxic gases," said Mary Lou Putman, who was brought to tears as she recounted her often unsuccessful efforts to prod the DEQ into taking action since she moved to the area two years ago. "It was making us sick and DEQ just looked the other way."
Mark Thommen said his calls to complain about the odors and obtain information from the DEQ have often elicited no response. "This is one of the most inept displays of government I've seen in a long time. I am totally embarrassed by it. I can't believe it."
"I want to first and foremost apologize that you did not receive a response," said Nina DeConcini, a DEQ regional manager. "That's on me and I will certainly make that right."
"You say that every time," Thommen replied.
DeConcini also acknowledged that the DEQ has made some mistakes over the years in its attempt to enforce air pollution regulations at the plants. The Tribune reported in March that the agency committed a series of blunders over several years that enabled both companies to operate without necessary pollution-control equipment. For example, DEQ records show that it allowed the APES plant to operate without pollution-control equipment since 2006, when its previous owner, ORRCO, unlawfully scrapped thermal oxidizers that destroy hazardous pollutants. The DEQ has never fined either company for the violation.
"We haven't taken appropriate action in a timely basis," DeConcini said. "We are working hard at rectifying those errors."
At the meeting, Scott Briggs, owner of the ORRCO plant, acknowledged for the first time in public that his operations have been at least partially to blame for the malodorous pollution. As reported in the Tribune's article in March, he said "I don't think that's true" when asked about allegations that his plant is the source of smells that have been plaguing the area since at least 2000.
But last week, he said, "I can say we are emitting volatile organic compounds that have potential odors and toxins. We are emitting VOCs at our site and are working to reduce those. I'm part of this community. I work here every day."
Briggs signed a "memorandum of agreement" with the DEQ that requires ORRCO to install new pollution-control equipment over the next six months, after which the agency will issue a new air pollution permit to the plant.
Several people in the audience demanded the company also install air pollution monitoring equipment that would be in operation around the clock, especially on nights and weekends when they said the odors are often the worst.
"Without 24/7 stack testing there is no way to tell us what is in the air," Thommen said.
But Jeff Bachman, a DEQ compliance and enforcement officer, said, "that's not feasible. They don't even make that kind of monitor."
DEQ Director Richard Whitman, who has been on the job in that capacity since February, said the agency is developing new air pollution regulations that would make it easier to clamp down on toxic emissions from industrial sources. The DEQ had expected to release a draft of those rules in late June, but Whitman said they have been delayed until fall while the Oregon Legislature resolves funding issues.
Developed under a new program created a year ago by Gov. Kate Brown, known as Cleaner Air Oregon, the rules are not expected to go into effect until mid-2018 at the earliest, Whitman said.
"It is taking time to put this program in place," he said. "Ultimately we are going to need the approval of the Oregon Legislature in order to fund this program."
The DEQ has asked the 2017 Legislature for an allocation of $1.1 million in initial funding, and expects to ask for an unspecified additional amount next year.
Whitman said the DEQ currently attempts to control air pollution over a wide region, but its rules do not enable it to address localized impacts, such as the vapors affecting the residents of Hayden Island. "The experience of the last couple years has shown that is clearly not adequate to protect public health," Whitman said.
The new air pollution permits for the APES and ORRCO plants would replace permits that expired in 2013. A public hearing on the APES permit is scheduled for June 21. A hearing on the ORRCO permit is now expected to be held in the fall.
"We are determined to do everything we can with these two companies," Whitman said.