SALEM — Peter Courtney used his prerogative as Senate president Friday, May 19, to cast a deciding vote to approve a Department of Environmental Quality grant application that some state lawmakers rejected earlier this month because of unhappiness with the agency.
The lawmakers' dissatisfaction delayed a vote for several weeks on whether to approve the agency's application to the Environmental Protection Agency for a $650,000 grant to test for air toxins related to diesel fuel in several neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland.
The Joint Committee on Ways and Means initially lacked the votes to approve the grant application, until Courtney stepped in. Both the Senate president and House Speaker Tina Kotek have the authority to vote on any committee from their respective chamber.
Courtney took a place on the Ways and Means Committee Friday, May 19, replacing Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who had planned to vote no on the grant application. Johnson agreed to voluntarily step aside, according to Courtney's office.
Some lawmakers opposed the grant application because of their anger over revelations that DEQ planned to publicize a potential, but unproven, pollution risk in the air surrounding a battery parts manufacturer in Lebanon. The company, Entek International, sued DEQ and won a gag order in April preventing the agency from notifying the public of their concerns.
DEQ had received information from the federal Environmental Protection Agency that modeling indicated Entek's use of a cancer-causing solvent, called trichloroethylene, or TCE, could pose an air pollution risk to workers and nearby residents, said Palmer Mason, DEW legislative adviser. DEQ wanted to set up air monitoring around the facility to glean more information about the impact of the solvent.
"We weren't saying that Entek was actually was presenting a real risk. We needed to get more data about whether the risk exists, and so those kind of monitoring efforts are the kind of thing we do all the time to ensure we are being fully protective of public health," Mason said May 12.
House Minority Leader Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said the agency's air-monitoring effort was not at contention.
"It's one thing to say we are going to set up monitoring stations. It's another to warn neighbors in a way that deprives a company from getting their reputation back, when the fact is, so far, there has been no evidence that it's caused any contamination," McLane said.
McLane said the agency's targeting of the company could appear political. The owners of Entek were active opponents of a corporate sales tax measure that was defeated on the November ballot, McLane said.
"So far as I know there is absolutely no tie to the agency's decision to go ask Entek to work with us to place monitors and Measure 97," Mason responded.
DEQ was not the only object of lawmakers' wrath Friday.
Lawmakers also pummeled the Oregon Health Authority when that agency sought approval for a different federal grant, after news reports highlighted the agency has thousands of people on the Oregon Health Plan who may be ineligible. A minority of lawmakers on the Ways and Means Committee also voted against approving that grant, because of the agency's performance.
"I'm gonna be a no today," said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner. "I'm actually going to be a no on multiple Oregon Health Authority actions, not because I want to see series denied or limited or reduced, but I have no confidence in the Oregon Health Authority.
Smith later admitted his earlier comments were "pointed" and that he wanted to work with the rest of the committee to make OHA an agency they could be proud of.