After years of dithering, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is finally trying to force a North Portland used-oil recycling refinery, American Petroleum Environmental Services, to construct and install air pollution control equipment at its plant near the Expo Center.
Last December, the agency ordered the plant to install the equipment, known as regenerative thermal oxidizers, by July 25. But when that day rolled around, the pollution control equipment was still not installed. The DEQ started issuing a $1,600 fine for every day that the plant operates without it. As of Friday, Aug. 4, the fines owed for three days of violations totaled $4,800, though none were issued last week, according to DEQ spokesman Matthew Van Sickle.
The company, also known as APES, closed down the North Portland plant from July 30 through Aug. 5, said Joe Stanaway, a company executive.
Until the oxidizers are installed, the DEQ is asking — but not requiring — the plant to limit its operating hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, but not on weekends.
Illegally removed equipment, no fines
A previous owner of the refinery unlawfully removed the pollution control equipment in 2006, an action the DEQ says was a violation of its air pollution permit. During the last 11 years, the DEQ never issued any fines for the unlawful removal of the equipment.
APES' air pollution permit expired in 2013, but was extended for an indefinite period of time.
DEQ rules allow the agency to extend permits for polluters who are not in compliance with their permits, without giving public notice or holding a public hearing, so long as the polluter files the necessary paperwork. In the case of the APES plant, it didn't matter that the plant had generated hundreds if not thousands of odor complaints from its neighbors since 2000.
The DEQ is preparing a new permit that is expected to go into effect later this year.
Due to a series of blunders, as reported by the Tribune on March 6, the DEQ is only just now enforcing the terms of the old permit. The DEQ made errors in the way it wrote the original permit by omitting important language pertaining to daily operating requirements, and had forgotten to follow up on an inspection in 2011 that revealed the fact that air pollution control equipment was missing. According to an APES report from 2011 that was obtained from the DEQ under a public records request, the oxidizers were removed because they were "not properly functioning" and were causing odors.
The DEQ opted to issue fines recently rather than close down the plant, although it has the authority to do so, according to rules cited by Michael Orman, an air quality manager at the agency.
In a statement provided to the Tribune, the company said it is "working tirelessly to install the Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer that will vastly improve air emissions from the facility. We have invested additional funds and deployed extra resources on this project while remaining dedicated to meeting our commitments to the state and the local community."
The plant's emissions lead to numerous odor complaints from North Portland residents, and its toxic emissions may have made some of the residents sick from a variety of respiratory and other ailments, as the Tribune reported in March.
The DEQ suspects the odors were caused by dangerous chemicals emitted by the plant known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, many of which can cause cancer and other types of disease. The thermal oxidizers are designed to destroy VOCs by burning them at extremely high temperatures. But the oxidizers are not capable of destroying other pollutants known to be emitted by the plant, such as heavy metals like chromium, which can also cause cancer, or sulfur dioxide.
Residents say they are weary of being asked to endure continuing delays as they wait for the plant to control its pollution, said Mary Lou Putman, a Hayden Island resident. Complaints on social media from area residents have dropped off this year, possibly due to the fact that the plant has reduced its operations since February.
"I am not anti-business, but I am pro responsible business," Putman said. "APES and their out-of-state investors continue to be in violation of the federal Clean Air Act. Period. They act like it's a game. By not shutting them down immediately for these violations, DEQ continues to pander to polluters. What's wrong with these people?"
Meanwhile, she says the odors still persist. On Sunday morning, she was awakened by what she describes as "toxic emissions."
"At 3:40 a.m. this morning ( Sunday) I was awakened," she said in an email. Her weather vane showed that the odors were coming from the direction of the plant. "And @10:30 a.m. we detected it again."
Blaming development bureau
APES officials said the installation was delayed by the city of Portland's Bureau of Development Services, which issues building permits for large and small construction projects. BDS needed to approve a permit for the construction of a concrete pad before installation of the oxidizers could proceed.
But the DEQ blames the company for the delay. It said that on multiple occasions APES "failed to provide Portland BDS with the requested documentation to support or clarify your permit applications in a timely fashion," according to a letter to the company dated Aug. 4.
APES officials said the city, not the company, had dragged its feet.
"Despite working with experienced professionals, the project experienced repeat delays brought on by the city of Portland's ever-changing requests," company executives Joe Stanaway and Mike Mazza said in a July 28 letter to the DEQ. They said the company even offered to pay a city employee overtime to help expedite its application for a permit.
They said APES has taken several additional actions "to get the permits as quickly as possible. DEQ's contention otherwise is incorrect and misguided."
But in a recent statement to the Tribune, company executives said the city caused only a "slight delay."
"We have had a strong partnership with BDS in each phase of needed approvals," they said.
Nevertheless, installation of the oxidizers is now moving forward.
Ross Caron, a BDS spokesman, said the city issued the permit for the concrete pad on July 26, 2017, two days before Stanaway and Mazza sent the letter. Although the company declined to provide an updated timeline for completion of the project to the Tribune, the company said in a July 14 letter to the DEQ that "we anticipate requiring an additional 10 to 12 weeks to obtain city permits and complete installation."
The APES plant has a long history of struggling to meet the requirements of city and state building permit codes, starting even before it removed the thermal oxidizers in 2006.
Last fall, the city's Bureau of Development Services notified APES of 21 building code violations at the plant, including some that occurred as far back as 2002. The notice of violations said numerous structural, electrical and plumbing projects at the plant had not been permitted or inspected. In addition, the installation of several storage tanks went ahead without obtaining necessary permits.
Although the permits and inspections do not guarantee the safety of new construction projects, they do ensure that they meet minimum standards laid out in state and local building codes, Caron said. He said the city is working with the company to correct the violations, and has issued no fines.
At plants like APES, safety is a major concern, not just for plant employees but for people in the neighborhood. In July 2009, several of the storage tanks at the plant exploded, according to news reports at the time.
"A huge explosion went off. It was just almost instantaneous. I went over and looked out the window and 20, 30, 40 foot wall of flame out there," Matt Coale, the owner of a neighboring business, told KPTV news.