ACRYLONITRILE (or What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You)

Daily, we see stories about the problems regulators cause business and development across the country or we hear about how regulators failed in places like Flint, Michigan. The new administration has proposed cutting the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 25 percent in an effort to reduce the regulatory burden created by at least one agency. I am sure other regulatory agencies will be affected as well.

I confess to muttering bad words under my breath about more than one federal or state agency myself on occasion, but I recently recalled an issue that occurred here in Albany, Oregon, a few years ago that gives me cause to be concerned about our current course.

Most of us have never heard of Acrylonitrile, “…a colorless volatile liquid that is an important monomer for the manufacture of useful plastics such as polyacrylontrile. It is reactive and toxic at low doses.” I certainly wasn’t aware that a local manufacturer was using this substance a few years ago, and I doubt that many others who lived near the plant were either. We rely on businesses to handle any dangerous chemicals responsibly, and they usually do. But what happens when a business with a large store of extremely dangerous material that requires careful management goes bankrupt? In Albany’s case, our Fire Department wrote a check to replenish the nitrogen blanket needed to control the material and then called the EPA to see if they could help. The agency immediately recognized the threat to public health and dispatched a team to Albany to conduct the needed cleanup. The federal officials worked collaboratively with our Fire Department, and the great majority of local residents never realized that a potential disaster was averted.

Every day, we rely on people we disparage as bureaucrats and regulators to ensure our health and safety. We regularly see and complain about their failings when something goes wrong, but I wonder if we appreciate the benefits of living in a place where things usually are done right. It takes little imagination to realize that if manufacturing plants in Albany, Oregon, occasionally have problems handling materials that can produce a catastrophe, then there must be many other places across the country where the same potential exists.

Maybe there won’t be any more incidents in the future like the one that occurred here in the past, and maybe adding a little more risk to our lives is worth whatever savings we might see on our tax bills. Perhaps businesses that use life-threatening compounds will never go bankrupt again or railroads transporting toxic substances will never have wrecks. I know I am grateful for the people who cleaned up the last mess we inherited in Albany and who work every day to help prevent similar threats in the future. I hope they will still be around when we need them in the years ahead.

Safety First

We had an incident at City Hall this morning that is a symptom of a much bigger problem affecting most cities across the country. A homeless, drug-addicted man who is incapable of caring for himself accosted several female employees as they reported to work. The most important message I want to pass along to all employees outside of public safety responders who are trained to handle these situations is that no one should feel obligated to walk into a threatening situation. Any employee should feel free to walk back to their car or any other safe area if there is a problem at the entrance to a City facility. No supervisor will find fault with an employee for reporting late to work if there is a perceived threat to safety. Employees should also know that they can walk away from any threatening person whether inside or outside the building. City Hall has two keycard lock entrances – one on the north (Third Avenue) side of the building and the other on the east (Ellsworth Street) side.

Last week, we had someone come into City Hall with a digital camera to record employees at work. There is no law against recording in a public space, but City employees should again feel free to walk away from someone whose motives or actions could be seen as threatening. The guiding principle is to avoid threats to personal safety and seek appropriate help.

I’m sure most of us are frustrated by our inability to either help or remove people who pose a threat to themselves or others. The individual who was at City Hall’s door this morning was recently saved from serious burns when Fire Chief Bradner stopped his car on his way to lunch when he saw the man’s clothing on fire and put it out. This homeless man is clearly unable to care for himself, yet there appears to be no resources available to provide supervised care. He apparently spent a year at a state facility before being discharged as someone who no longer needed supervised treatment. The cost of dealing with his problems has been transferred from the state to the Albany community; and, more importantly, it seems highly likely he will come to harm in the near future.

Living in a country that places a high value on individual freedom means that it is sometimes difficult for government to help people who are unable or unwilling to help themselves. There are facilities in Albany that help homeless people every day, and we spend large sums of money to provide services to people with mental health problems or drug addictions. Unfortunately, we have a relatively small number who can probably only be helped in a full-time care facility.

We will not be solving the homeless problem anytime soon; so in the meantime, please be protective of personal safety and take advantage of emergency services when help is needed.

no easy job

I sometimes wonder how many Albany residents know what a City Councilor does and how much pay they receive for doing it. I guess many do because so few are willing to serve on the City Council. Why would anyone attend countless evening meetings, listen to seemingly endless verbal harangues, and rarely receive any thanks for less than $250 per month? As someone who once served on a school board, I have an idea of why people volunteer and an appreciation for the difficulty and importance of the work.

Wednesday night, the Council listened to a 25-minute appeal of an administrative decision to deny an applicant a permit to hold an event in one of our parks. The applicant spent most of his time lecturing and criticizing the Council, rather than informing them about why he thought the event should be allowed. Our Mayor was far more gracious and tolerant than I would have been in letting the person express himself, and I think her approach was the right one. Despite having to listen to what I believe was disrespectful speech, the appeal was concluded with the Council’s decision to uphold the denial with no major disruption of the Council’s business. I really don’t understand why people feel the need to be offensive when trying to make a point. I’m more inclined to consider someone else’s point of view when they show at least minimal respect for mine.

Too often, people show up at meetings angry rather than focused on learning the facts and finding solutions. Councils are almost always reluctant to antagonize residents if there are alternatives that protect the public interest. There is a great deal of current discussion about how divided opinions are in our country today, but I recall far too many meetings filled with angry people over too many years to believe there has been much of a change. I once received death threats as a school board member when we considered changing bus boundaries at the high school. I can also recall a very angry mob confronting three nervous-looking Lane County Commissioners in Lowell, Oregon, over 30 years ago when the Commission was thinking about locating a prison work camp in the area.

I believe I have attended more than 2,000 evening meetings during my lifetime, and I’m fairly certain that number exceeds the sanity quota. My wife accused me of being an angry old man in so many words a few days ago, and my only defense is that my reserves of patience and the milk of human kindness have been exhausted by a few too many public meetings. I am consequently very grateful for the work of our Councilors who willingly give up the easy moments of their lives to take on the challenges of making a community work.