Some question regulations as Merkley touts employment

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Construction continues on Intels DX2 plant despite controversy over the companys emission permit.Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has thrust himself into the middle of one of the most contentious debates in the region — the benefit of manufacturing jobs versus the environmental impacts of the manufacturing companies.

Merkley has introduced three bills he is calling the “Manufacturing Jobs for America” package. The Senate Democrat touted them at two local news conferences during the past few weeks. One was Nov. 15 at Indow Windows in North Portland. The other was outside the closed Blue Heron Paper Co. mill in Oregon City on Nov. 26.

At both appearances, Merkley stressed that manufacturing jobs pay more than average jobs. He also said exported goods bring new dollars into the regional economy. And in Oregon City, Merkley said manufacturing companies in America pollute less than those in some foreign countries, such as China.

“We can and must bring back jobs to our shores by cracking down on unfair trade practices while rewarding companies that play by the rules and treat their workers well,” Merkley said.

Some people might argue with all of that reasoning, however. Neighbors and environmental activists are complaining about emissions from several manufacturing plants in the region. They charge the emissions threaten public health and the environment, and accuse federal and state environmental regulators of not doing enough to rein them in.

The most prominent fight is about the new air-quality permit being sought from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality by Intel, the large semiconductor manufacturer with plants in Aloha and Hillsboro. Other companies targeted for criticism in the recent past include Esco in Northwest Portland, Freightliner in North Portland and Precision Castparts in Clackamas County. All have been accused of violating federal and state clean-air standards — charges the companies deny.

Even Merkley’s office admits the issue is complicated.

“Enforcement of existing regulation is important and Sen. Merkley is committed to seeing that environmental laws are enforced as written. As with most things, there’s always room for improvement,” says Merkley staffer Matt McNally.

Higher pay in manufacturing

It’s easy to understand why Merkley is pushing to increase manufacturing jobs in America, either by moving them from overseas or creating new ones. Numerous government and private studies show they pay substantially more than other jobs requiring comparable education and skill levels. The steady loss of American manufacturing jobs over the years is widely thought to be a major drag on the economy.

The Oregon economy is especially dependent on manufacturing. Oregon is the state with the greatest share of its economy tied to manufacturing — 29 percent of Oregon’s gross state product was from the manufacturing sector in 2011. The percentage is even higher in the Portland region, where locally manufactured products are shipped out of the Port of Portland.

The regional importance of manufacturing was noted at the Portland Business Alliance’s monthly breakfast forum on Nov. 20. Guest speaker Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute called the region an “export powerhouse,” singling out Intel by name. And Portland Mayor Charlie Hales praised Freightliner owner Daimler Trucks for committing to build a $150 million headquarters on Swan Island.

Merkley aims to increase manufacturing jobs with three bills. The “BUILD Career and Technical Education Act” would support career and technical education in middle schools and high schools. The “Job Creation through Energy Efficient Manufacturing Act” would provide competitive grants to states to fund new or expanded industrial energy-efficiency financing programs. And the “Level the Playing Field in Global Trade Act” unveiled in Oregon City would classify substandard wages, workplace safety practices and environmental protections as illegal subsidies requiring import tariffs to be imposed on foreign manufacturers.

Plants put out emissions

Despite the praise and push for manufacturing jobs, controversies swirl around many of the plants where products are made. Neighbors and environmentalists are threatening to sue Intel over inadvertently failing to disclose fluoride emissions, even though the amount did not violate federal or state limits. Activists submitted a petition with 2,600 signatures to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office calling for increased scrutiny of Intel late last month.

Before then, the DEQ brokered a Good Neighbor Agreement between ESCO and residents living near its Northwest Portland manufacturing plant in late 2011. Residents had accused ESCO of violating emission standards for years. Company officials denied the charges, but agreed to reduce pollution and odors from the plant.

Residents near Freightliner’s truck assembly plant in North Portland have been complaining about paint and industrial odors coming from it. Although the DEQ renewed Freightliner’s discharge permit in July, the complaints are continuing.

And in August, researchers at the University of Massachusetts released a report ranking Precision Castparts as the No. 1 industrial polluter in the nation. It said that one-third of the score comes from three Portland-area facilities. Company officials disputed the report, saying the data provided by the U.S. Environmental protection Agency was misinterpreted.

Resolving such disputes could become increasingly important in coming years. Manufacturing jobs are expected to increase as the economy improves and existing initiatives move forward. They include the Greater Portland Export Initiative, developed with the help of the Brookings Institute, which is intended to double regional exports within the next five years.

Merkley’s bills are intended to do even more.

“Washington can and should do a lot to expand manufacturing, because if we don’t build things in America, we won’t have a middle class in America,” he said when announcing the package.

Contract Publishing

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine