Stories from the Field

BLOG by Lisa Arkin

Clean Air versus Dirty Tactics

Eugene, OR

Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Lisa Arkin.

Going head-to-head with corporate lobbyists and lawyers is a fine way to keep your environmental advocacy skills honed! During the nearly two years I served on the Cleaner Air Oregon rule-making committee, I got lots of practice dissecting the duplicitous arguments and twisted claims proffered by industry’s public relations people.

I can share surreal memories, such as looking on in disbelief when the woman representing Roseburg Forest Products, nearly sobbing, implored that her company was a small family-owned business that would fire workers if Oregon adopts air quality laws based on protecting health. She neglected to mention that Roseburg has polluting plants in Oregon, California, Montana, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Maybe she forgot that their California plants are complying with that state’s much stricter air quality standards.

There was also the dark time when a person representing the Pulp and Paper Association intimidated a mother representing her Southeast Portland neighborhood, the one downwind of notorious Bullseye Glass (the manufacturer who spewed hexavalent chromium and a soup of other highly harmful heavy metals on the adjacent daycare and the homes of working class Oregonians). The giant Pulp and Paper consortium threatened this mom with being hauled before the Oregon Governmental Ethics Commission for not registering as a lobbyist during the Cleaner Air Oregon meetings! This woman is a full-time speech therapist and was appointed by Governor Brown specifically to be the voice for her neighborhood. She’s a mom dedicating volunteer hours to help her neighbors – that’s not the definition of a lobbyist. She stayed strong, despite this threat.

There were also the incessant, thinly veiled threats to fire workers, the industry’s go-to mantra for every effort to protect environmental health. Yeah, we’ve heard it all before – threaten workers with unemployment so you can use them as a tool. Do workers never breathe the polluted air they work in?

These few examples only scratch the surface of the bullying and half-truths I witnessed during the Cleaner Air Oregon process. Nonetheless, we clean air advocates felt truth would prevail. After all, this was an official, science-based series of advisory committee meetings, right?

I’m sorry to say, I’ve become skeptical.

Because public response to Cleaner Air Oregon has been so positive, polluters are resorting to negative tactics. The evening the DEQ held public hearings in Eugene, Seneca Jones Timber and Roseburg Forest Products turned out dozens of their workers to demand the DEQ drop Cleaner Air Oregon.

Seneca strongly objects to the health-based goals of Cleaner Air Oregon and new requirements for industries to reduce pollution. I’d like to know how Seneca reconciles that with their claim to be “a sustainable, green business?” How much money is Seneca spending to fight Cleaner Air Oregon rather than supporting efforts to improve the health of their downwind neighbors in Eugene? Seneca neglects to mention that Cleaner Air Oregon proposed toxics reporting and modern pollution control equipment simply brings Oregon closer to the laws in other states.

Going lower still, Bullseye Glass just filed a $30 million lawsuit against Governor Kate Brown and the two agencies charged with public and environmental health. The lawsuit, which has every appearance of a slap-suit, claims Governor Brown conspired to launch an unprecedented crackdown on a small business – no mention of the many air quality laws they’re charged with violating and the citizen’s lawsuit for health damages.

Bend, Oregon

Clean Air gives us better views. Bend, Oregon. Photo by Lisa Arkin.

What other tricks are up the sleeves of corporate black suits to pressure our State to back down from a goal of cleaner air? They seemingly have no regret about pushing communities, workers and small businesses to the bottom.

Clean air is healthier kids. Clean air is less asthma. Clean air is less greenhouse gases and real solutions to climate change. Clean air is the only sane choice we have to move society forward. The status quo – where toxic air rains down on working class neighborhoods – is not an option. Don’t let industry drown Cleaner Air Oregon in lawsuits and lies. Throw a lifesaver by sending your support in the form of a public comment now. We all breathe this air – the forces of justice must prevail.

Lisa Arkin, Exec. Director

BLOG by Mysti Frost

Pushing for Clean Air

I think I will remember the day of the DEQ hearing on Cleaner Air Oregon for the rest of my life. I was sick with a very painful sinus and throat infection and I was not emotionally prepared for what was in store for me.

As I entered the meeting room at the DEQ in Eugene, I didn’t realize that I was walking into a room full of people opposed to nearly everything we at Beyond Toxics fights for.

Everyone in the room seemed friendly enough at the beginning of the Department of Environmental Quality’s presentation about Cleaner Air Oregon’s proposed rules. I listened to the enthusiastic presentation with a big smile on my face. It gave me hope to hear how the rules will try to balance the responsibility of cleaning up pollution with public health and cleaner manufacturing. I was very impressed and ready to give them all a high five.

The DEQ staff asked if there were any questions. This is about the time it became clear to me that the folks sitting around me were not impressed and smiling about these rules. They were more like spitting and hissing. They shouted out questions like “Why are you making us monitor chemicals you never monitored before?” “How can you impose laws on us requiring equipment improvements”? “Where are the fees you will collect from us going?” “To fund jobs!” I wanted to shout out.

Then came time for public testimony. For over an hour, one after another, they took to the mic and blasted the DEQ cleaner air staff. Roseburg Forest Products, then the Chamber of Commerce and Seneca. ALL of these testimonies claimed they would have to cut jobs and that these rules would damage Oregon’s economy.

By this time, I was both angry and confused about their tactics. It turned out I would be the last speaker of the night.I was ready to tell them all how I had worked for years at a law firm on work injury cases many involving the same businesses in the room. I was ready to cite statistics about the economic benefits of health communities. But as soon as I faced the room fear and my sore throat meant I was unable to voice my anger. I thanked the Cleaner Air Oregon staff for their efforts and mumbled something about the importance of regulating for human health and environmental justice. As I made my way down the aisle to exit the room, many there stared at me in disgust. As I approached the door, two large men stepped in my way. At first I thought it was my imagination. But the hair standing up on my neck told me it was not by accident. My eyes focused on the exit sign over the men’s shoulders. I said “excuse me” and a long pause followed. Then suddenly one of them stepped aside. As I pushed passed them he said, “That took a lot of guts. You should be proud.” He said this condescendingly with a straight face. No smile in his eyes. I didn’t bother to respond. I raced up the stairs and ran out the door all the way to my car.

I was hard on myself as I drove away from the hearing. Did I say the right words? Did I make a difference? But a few days later I got an email from a friend saying someone saw me at the hearing, representing Beyond Toxics and being the only one speaking out in support of the rules. I learned some valuable lessons that night. Don’t let them get into your head.

The experience made one of my favorite quotes come true: “Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” –Maggie Kuhn

Mysti Frost, Environmental Justice Community Organizer