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Air quality advocates demand pollution controls

Angry air quality supporters demanded Thursday that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality deny a one-year extension for installation of pollution control equipment at several wood products plants.

"Does the DEQ really care about people or do they care about industry?" said Medford resident Bruce Bauer. "Are they (DEQ) competent or are they corrupt?"

In a sometimes heated exchange with the DEQ and timber industry officials, audience members at a public hearing in Medford said allowing the release of hazardous air pollutants should be stopped.

Representatives from Sierra Pine and Timber Products, both in Medford, and Rogue Valley Plywood in White City said they are planning to install millions of dollars of equipment to clean up hazardous byproducts of plywood or particle board production such as methanol, phenol and two carcinogens, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

The three companies together produce 261 tons of hazardous pollutants annually, which will be reduced by 168 tons with the new equipment, according to the DEQ.

The new federal rules differ from other clean air laws because they set guidelines for so-called "grandfathered" industries that have been allowed to pollute because they were operating before the laws took effect.

Five other wood products companies in the state, including three in the Roseburg area, also have filed for the extension.

Timber company officials say they need a one-year extension because the federal Environmental Protection Agency rules have shifted over the years, and court cases have made it difficult to settle on a particular technology for cleaning up the pollutants. The companies were required to install the equipment on Oct. 1.

That date was set on June 19 after the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled against setting a compliance date of Oct. 1, 2008.

Many in the audience of about 40 people questioned why the DEQ held the public hearing after the deadline.

"Is there a point to this hearing?" said Medford resident Chuck Casale.

Gaylene Hurley said, "I'm tired of the DEQ acting like an enabler of polluting industries."

They said industry has known since 2004 that it would have to install the equipment.

Conde Cox of Jacksonville, an ardent air quality supporter, said the timber industries want the delay in the hope that the Bush administration might take some action over the next year to strip the new federal requirements.

"The DEQ is covering for them dragging their feet," Cox said.

He said local industry is creating a smoke screen when it claims it is working as fast as possible to install the equipment.

Katherine Fry, director of corporate environmental affairs for Sierra Pine, disputed Cox's characterization.

"It is not a smoke screen," she said.

Fry said the industry has struggled through changes in developing a methodology for properly assessing the risk of pollutants from a particular company and has already made considerable effort to develop a way to control emissions.

"We have spent significant amounts of funds," she said.

John Becker, DEQ air quality manager in Medford, said the federal Environmental Protection Agency has made provisions for the extensions, which will affect 244 facilities nationwide.

"Oregon is the only state to my knowledge that is going through a public hearing process," he said.

The equipment being installed in the plants is highly specialized and only two or three vendors make it, requiring a substantial lead time, he said.

Becker and other DEQ officials didn't directly respond to some of the accusations made by audience members. He said the hearing wasn't a public debate, and in response to one criticism about not knowing the name of a particular audience member, he said, "That's unfair."

Responding to a question from the audience, Becker said fines would be levied against the manufacturers if they failed to comply with the new deadline. The amount of the fines would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Medford resident Cynthia Lora said she'd heard nothing from the DEQ about the potential health consequences of allowing pollutants to be produced for another year.

Medford resident Brendan Girard said his family is just about to have a baby, and he worries about the health consequences of dirty air.

"For me, I don't want to put my child at risk," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.