For years, Hayden Island residents have claimed smelly discharges from nearby industries are making them sick.
On its website, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality describes the air pollution problems tormenting North Portland residents as primarily an "odor" issue, saying little about potential health impacts.
In recent months, a regional DEQ manager at a public meeting described the odors — now linked to two oil recycling plants — as a "potential" health hazard.
Last week, however, the DEQ released a draft air pollution permit for one of the oil recycling plants that left no doubt about the health risks from the plant emissions, according to a longtime workplace safety consultant who reviewed the document at the request of the Portland Tribune.
John P. Williams, who has worked with industrial polluters and labor unions on air pollution issues for more than 30 years, says the draft permit he reviewed for American Petroleum Environmental Services (APES) reveals that as many as 11 pollutants allowed under the permit could cause cancer when emitted into North Portland's air.
His findings contradict years of assurances made by the DEQ that the foul-smelling emissions pose no serious health threat, and come just days before the final deadline for submitting public comment on the permit.
The DEQ issued the draft air pollution permit to APES' refinery near the Expo Center at 11535 N. Force Ave., where the company recycles used motor oil from cars and trucks after removing contaminants at temperatures of more than 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
For most of the APES plant's 17-year history, the DEQ said it did not know who was causing North Portland's foul odors. But in recent months, after viewing infrared videos, the DEQ determined that APES and another nearby used-oil refinery, Oil Re-Refining Co. (ORRCO), were the likely sources.
In February, Mike Mazza, APES plant owner, said "I do not believe the DEQ knows the source of odors." But last week, Mazza was no longer denying APES' role in creating the odors.
The APES permit would replace the expired 2013 permit and allow the plant to continue operating until 2022, with some modifications.
Last Wednesday, the DEQ held a public hearing on the 38-page document. No one from the DEQ has briefed the public about the carcinogenic discharges allowed by the permit, either at the hearing or at other public meetings this year.
Only about 25 people attended the hearing, but the crowd would have been much larger had the public been told about the carcinogens, said Mark Thommen, a Hayden Island resident in attendance.
The DEQ will accept written public comments on the new permit until July 3.
In his independent review of the permit, Williams said it allows the APES plant to burn waste oil containing small amounts of chromium, arsenic, lead, cadmium, PCBs and a category of chlorinated chemicals known as halogens.
"When you burn PCBs and halogens together at certain temperatures, you can get a catalytic reaction that could potentially create small amounts of dioxin-like compounds," said Williams, a member of Intel Corporation's Air Quality Advisory Committee.
He cited a 1996 report published on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website noting that the carcinogens dioxin, PCBs and benzene "may be formed" during the burning of waste oils as a result of incomplete combustion. The EPA considers dioxin to be the most carcinogenic substance in the environment, dangerous even in extremely small quantities.
"A peanut butter jar full of dioxin would be enough to kill the entire planet," Williams said.
The permit does not mention or discuss the plant's potential to emit dioxin, but would allow the plant to release as many as eight other carcinogenic chemicals, including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, nickel, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, naphthalene and possibly hexavalent chromium.
It seems the foul odors plaguing North Portland are "silent but deadly," said Mary Lou Putman, a Hayden Island resident. Putman and many other North Portland residents say the plant periodically emits a horrific sulfuric stench with petroleum undertones, making their lives often unbearable.
"Every aspect involved in refining petroleum is inherently dangerous, carcinogenic and poisonous, whether you can smell it or not," she said.
Putman called on Gov. Kate Brown to issue a "cease and desist" order that would shut down the plant immediately. Putman also called for an "independent investigation" of APES' emissions as well as of the DEQ's repeated failures over the years to address APES' smelly discharges.
"DEQ is not qualified to protect the public or the environment," she said.
DEQ permit terms
The biggest change in the new permit is a requirement that APES must install new pollution control equipment no later than July 25.
The new equipment, known as thermal oxidizers, burns toxic compounds before they are emitted. The permit requires the oxidizers to remove 97 percent of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a category of pollutant that includes petroleum-based compounds like naphthalene and ethylbenzene.
Williams said air pollution control devices at other industrial facilities perform much better. For example, testing results show that devices installed at Intel's Ronler Acres and Aloha plants in Washington County remove more than 99 percent of VOCs. That removes three times as many VOCs as one that is 97 percent efficient, he said.
The APES plant installed thermal oxidizers in 2003, according to the DEQ, but unlawfully removed them in 2006 without permission, as the Tribune reported in March. The DEQ has allowed the plant to operate almost continuously for the past 11 years without the equipment. It discovered the violation in 2011, but has never cited anyone for it.
In addition to toxic chemicals, the new permit would allow the refinery to release up to 300 parts per million of sulfur dioxide (SO2). That's more stringent than the expired permit, which did not specify a parts-per-million limit for SO2.
But the new permit allows APES to emit more than 10 times the typical concentration of SO2 emitted by oil refineries across the country, according to the EPA.
The permit requires monitoring of APES' emissions only once every two years. Many of APES' neighbors have demanded more frequent monitoring, because the contaminants in oils processed at the plant can vary day to day and foul odors have been inundating their homes at random times of day and night.
The permit specifies that APES can use a certain type of computer software to calculate emissions, which it must self-report annually, Williams said. But the EPA says on its website that this software is "outdated" and "not reliably functional," and predicts "additional problems" will surface in the future.
"Companies that rely on this tool for calculating emissions no longer have an accurate, reliable way of doing so," Williams said, noting that emission calculations are not a trivial matter. "This is a place with a long history of problems," he said. "Every ton should be closely accounted for."
Asked to comment on the faulty software, DEQ Air Quality Section Manager Michael Orman said he is aware of its deficiencies, but APES can use alternative methods for calculating emissions instead.
DEQ officials declined to respond to several other questions posed by the Tribune for this article.
"We will add your questions as official comments for the record and will respond to you and everyone else who provides comments and asks questions after the close of the comment period," Orman said.
Hexavalent chromium risk
Plants like American Petroleum Environmental Services (APES) that process chromium at high heat often emit it in the hexavalent form, which the EPA considers to be nearly as carcinogenic as dioxin, said John P. Williams, air pollution expert. The DEQ has identified several other factories in Portland that process chromium at high temperatures in their furnaces and have released the hexavalent variety into the air, including Bullseye Glass, ESCO and Precision Castparts.
Williams said the permit allows APES to annually release up to 255 grams of chromium. A study by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control shows that about half the chromium emitted from plants that burn used oil is hexavalent. "Well over 100 grams emitted at the plant could be hexavalent chromium," Williams said.
While that amount seems very small, the California Air Resources Board has calculated that annual releases of just 2 grams of hexavalent chromium can cause an extra 10 cancers per million people over 70 years.
Other agencies have used a much-higher threshold for hexavalent chromium emissions.
Michael Orman, an air quality manager at the DEQ, said he did not know whether the chromium emitted by APES was hexavalent or not. — Paul Koberstein
How to file public comments