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Monday, October 30, 2006

News From My Backyard: Portland's Air Thick With Toxic Chemical From Car Exhaust

The Oregonian ran this alarming article today that ought to concern any Portland, Oregon-area resident.

Apparently, Portland's airshed contains dangerous levels of the toxic and carcinogenic chemical benzene due to high benzene concentrations in the gasoline burned by Oregonian's cars, trucks and SUVs. Benzene, a potent chemical that causes cancer and blood disorders, is found in the air around many major cities with lots of vehicles. But the high benzene levels in Oregon gasoline means that Portland's airshed has much higher concentrations of the dangerous chemical than would be expected for a city of it's size - according to the article, Portland's benzene levels are roughly the same as those found in the air over the Bronx borough of New York City, for example!

And Portland isn't alone. According to the article, gasoline in Oregon and Washington appear to have the highest benzene levels within the lower 48 states. Benzene levels in and around Seattle, Tacoma and other urban areas in Washington are also presumably higher than other cities of their size and are likely at or near dangerous levels. Benzene levels in Oregon and Washington gasoline are twice as high as the national average, and three times higher than in California, the article reports.

This is a real public health concern that should be addressed. Clearly there is no reason why Oregon or Washington's gasoline standards should not include the stricter standards for benzene found in many other states, including our neighbor to the south, California.

The EPA has proposed new 'cap-and-trade' regulation for benzene that would set a national cap on refineries starting in 2011 - and would likely preclude any state action - but the EPA predicts that refineries in the Northwest would rely on the trading system to purchase credits from refineries in other regions to avoid making improvements to reduce benzene in their gasoline. Although benzene levels in Northwest gasoline would drop, they would remain the highest in the nation, the EPA predicts.

The Oregon DEQ has tried to block the new trading system saying that it puts Oregonians "needlessly at risk." A weak federal law would block states from enacting stricter legislation and the Oregon DEQ argues it's better to have no federal law at all, leaving it to states like Oregon to regulate their own benzene levels. The EPA is now considering comments and is expected to release a final version of the new regulations in coming months.

Read on: "There's danger in the air", by Michael Milstein (The Oregonian, October 30th, 2006):

On sunny days, families picnic in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, joggers trot by and teenagers chat on cell phones.
You wouldn't know it from the crisp view of a shining Mount Hood, but they're all breathing a soup of toxic air. It's especially full of an invisible but dangerous offender: benzene, spewed from tailpipes of cars on highways ringing the city.

Benzene, a potent chemical that causes cancer and blood disorders, is not unusual in major cities with lots of vehicles. But in Portland, it's worse.

That's because the gasoline we put in our cars, pickups and SUVs is dirtier.

It holds nearly twice as much benzene as the national average and three times as much as gasoline in California, where strict limits make its gasoline the cleanest. Parts of Portland last year recorded benzene levels about as high as the Bronx borough of New York City -- in some neighborhoods many times above levels considered healthy for long-term exposure.

The reason? The federal government requires cleaner gasoline elsewhere -- it makes no such requirement in the Northwest because our skies are considered too clean to trigger regulation. So vehicles in Oregon and Washington, fueled by gasoline made from benzene-rich Alaskan oil, vent about 50 percent more toxic compounds into the air per mile than cars in East Coast and Southern states, data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show.

The skies above humming freeways such as Interstate 5, I-84 and I-405 flow with hidden rivers of these chemicals. Those rivers surge into Portland's urban core, filling downtown, residential neighborhoods and industrial zones like soup in a bowl.
Although the EPA now proposes new rules to reduce benzene in gasoline nationally, it would allow gasoline here to remain the dirtiest in the country and pre-empt Oregon from adopting tougher limits of its own -- because states usually cannot override a federal rule.

State and local air quality agencies are fighting the approach, saying it leaves people here at unacceptably high risk.

Soaring cancer risks

Assessing the risk is tricky. The more benzene in gasoline, the more ends up in the air. Although the risk of developing cancer from a lifetime of breathing benzene remains slim in Multnomah County -- about 26 in a million, far less than the risk from smoking -- it's more than twice the national average, according to federal data.

"The higher the benzene, the worse off you are," said Dave Nordberg, a transportation specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

For people in parts of the city laden with toxic air, however, the risk runs higher. A new analysis by the DEQ, which examined the way bad air swirls through the city, shows benzene concentrations in parts of downtown and the Pearl District at more than 200 times levels considered safe for people breathing it throughout their lives.

The analysis was based on pollution data from 1999. But some monitors in Portland last year showed as much benzene in the air as monitors in the Bronx.

Until now, Oregon and federal air authorities focused mainly on pollution that contributes to smog. Some basic measures -- such as the accordion-shaped nozzles on gas pumps -- capture benzene that might otherwise evaporate into the air. But agencies have recently turned much more attention to invisible but harmful compounds such as benzene, setting benchmarks and studying their levels in local air.

About two-thirds of benzene in downtown Portland comes from tailpipes of vehicles -- a much larger source of toxic air compounds than industrial smokestacks, the DEQ has found.

It's worst close to major highways: Benzene levels measure 10 times higher within 50 meters of a road than 400 meters away.

The DEQ's goal is for no more than one person in a million to get cancer from breathing the air, environmental officials say. But typical Portlanders breathing local air throughout their life run a risk of cancer 66 times higher.

Breathing the worst air in the city? Your risk runs 350 in a million, according to the DEQ results.

The average Portland resident is almost 10,000 times more likely to get cancer breathing local air than to win the jackpot in Powerball, DEQ figures show.

Benzene, which causes genetic damage and immune system and blood disorders, contributes almost a quarter of the cancer risk. It's the largest contributor of any toxic compound the DEQ examined.

But it's only one of many toxins exhaled by cars. The next major contributor to cancer risk is the fine particles in diesel exhaust, a prime cause of lung cancer. Others include formaldehyde and butadiene, which cause respiratory disorders, cancers and immune system problems.

"Just the number of cars we have overwhelms everything else," Russell said. "Even our biggest industrial sources are dwarfed by what comes from cars."

The automotive population of the Portland metropolitan area is growing faster than its human population.

There are 27 percent more cars now in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties than 10 years ago, according to Oregon Department of Transportation figures.

Cars have gotten much cleaner over the decades, and new tailpipe emissions standards pushed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski will help, state officials say. But "the problem is that our car population has skyrocketed," said Monica Russell of the DEQ's air quality program. "So all the gains we made have been offset."

They have also been undercut by our dirtier gasoline.

The credit conundrum

Oregon gets 90 percent of its gasoline from refineries in Washington, and more than 80 percent of that comes from the North Slope of Alaska, according to the Oregon Department of Energy. The oil may have 10 times as much benzene in it as oil from other regions, according to the EPA.

Refineries can remove benzene from gasoline, and they do in polluted parts of the country where the government requires it. But that does not include the Northwest.

Also, refineries that remove benzene sometimes sell it to chemical companies that use it in the manufacture of other compounds. But there is not a large enough chemical industry in the Northwest to create much appetite for benzene here, Nordberg said.

"It makes it more expensive to take it out of our gasoline than other gasoline," he said.

The BP Cherry Point refinery, the largest in Washington, installed a new $115 million unit in 2003 mainly to reduce sulfur levels in its gasoline. But it has the dual benefit of eliminating most benzene. The refinery, which supplies ARCO stations in the Northwest, now produces gasoline with less than half the average benzene levels in the region, said spokesman Mike Abendhoff.

The EPA does not reveal levels of benzene in gasoline from individual refineries, saying it's confidential business information. It releases benzene levels only by groups of states, and it lumps Oregon and Washington with Nevada, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii.

Gasoline in those states has more benzene -- and burning it puts more toxins in the air -- than gas anywhere else in the country, based on refinery data from 2003.

Oregon and Washington appear to have the highest benzene levels within the lower 48 states, based on interviews with state officials and refinery operators. Arizona, for example, gets its gasoline from different sources and has tighter regulations, so its benzene levels are lower.

Nobody decided the Northwest would end up with more benzene -- it just turned out that way. The Clean Air Act began to clamp down on toxic air pollution in the 1990s, but focused first on the most populated, polluted regions, said EPA spokesman John Millett. That left the Northwest out.

Pressured by lawsuits, the EPA proposed a new national rule limiting benzene in gasoline starting in 2011. But the limit would be a national average -- some refineries could produce gasoline with more, and others with less.

Refineries get credits if they produce gasoline with less benzene. Other refineries could buy credits instead of upgrading facilities to make cleaner gasoline.

The EPA is now considering comments and is expected to release a final version in coming months.

The trading system is intended to give refineries flexibility to make improvements where it's most cost-effective.

But the EPA predicts that refineries in the Northwest would rely on the trading system to avoid making as many improvements. Although benzene levels in Northwest gasoline would drop, they would remain the highest in the nation, the EPA predicts.

"It makes good sense until you realize we're the guys who aren't getting the levels down," Nordberg said.

But Al Mannato of the American Petroleum Institute said the Northwest could actually benefit more than much of the country. That's because the region's benzene levels are so high now, they would be reduced by a larger percentage than those elsewhere.

"The areas that are a little higher are still getting benzene levels much lower than they would without this," he said.

He also said many refineries have already reduced benzene output in the past few years. More intensive processing to reduce benzene shrinks the gasoline supply because less gas is produced.

But the Oregon DEQ tried to shoot down the trading system. Air Quality Administrator Andrew Ginsburg wrote to the EPA that its approach "puts Oregon citizens needlessly at risk" and leaves the Pacific Northwest with benzene levels twice as high as some other states.

He said the EPA should require refiners everywhere to reduce benzene to the greatest extent possible.

"By setting up a trading program, they've perpetuated the problem," he said.

The weak federal standard also puts the state at a disadvantage, by blocking the state from enacting its own rule, he said.
"Instead of making a weak rule," he said, "it's better that they make no rule."
[A hat tip to Natalie McIntire]


Anonymous said...

How do we find an attorney to represent us on this case. I feel the benzene is affecting us with Lukemia. I was working in areas of high benezine and diagnosed this last December. I communted to work everyday not knowing the risks. Is there an attorney out there that would help people in a lawsuit.
Let me know.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article. I am surprised more people aren't aware of the Benzene problem.
Something to consider when your picking a neighborhood to live in.
SE Portland

Clean Air Dude said...

I also contracted leukemia after working for several years in the high benzene area at South Waterfront in Portland. I had CML but had a bone marrow/stem cell transplant in 2004. I'd like to find others that have had to deal with this. Please email me at . Peace.