Billed as models for the rest of the nation, mandatory insulation programs in Oregon are models of special-interest politicking.
The nation is in crisis, "the energy crisis." An Arab oil boycott brings lines at the gas pumps; when the boycott is ended, the OPEC countries exercise their new-found power on prices. The days of 25-cents-a-gallon gasoline are over, and the prices of electricity and home heating oil soar. In the Pacific Northwest, historically home of the cheapest electricity in the nation because of hydroelectric power, a dry winter lowers water levels and cuts into generating capacity, causing brownouts and state-ordered shut offs of industrial power.
The city of Portland, Oregon, initiates a two-year study of its energy situation, described by the city's energy advisor as the first local energy-planning effort.
Winter brings natural gas shortages across the nation, widely interpreted as a confirmation that we are running out of energy resources. Portland unveils its 11-volume study, eight devoted to energy conservation measures, and sets up a citizens' commission to devise a plan.
A revolution shuts down oil production in Iran. Americans, relying on imports for almost half of our needs, are again faced with waiting lines at the gas pumps. The Portland City Council adopts a Comprehensive Energy Conservation Policy that includes mandatory "weatherization" of all existing buildings—the addition of such features as insulation, weatherstripping, and storm windows. "We are pleased," says the mayor, "that Portland is again a national leader in taking an initiative in solving a pressing problem."
The city council of Eugene, Oregon's next-largest city, passes a mandatory weatherization ordinance. The local paper opens its report with the announcement that Eugene has now become "a national leader in community-level conservation efforts."
* * *
Up here in Oregon, people are fiercely proud of the state's natural beauty, clean environment, "livability," and "quality of life." Oregonians also have an unusual willingness to forget that freedom and rights have a lot to do with the quality of life.
Politicians in Oregon have understood this willingness for years. A lot of Oregonians were surprised to hear about mandatory weatherization, but I wasn't. Having lived in Oregon for most of my life, I've observed a kind of "Oregon First" mentality among politicians here. They love to come up with "new" ideas to protect livability and quality of life. Most important, they want to be the first to implement their ideas, hoping that their ideas will then be implemented by the rest of the nation.
In 1971 Oregon was the first to come up with a "bottle bill" outlawing pull-top cans and nonreturnable bottles. Many Oregon politicians went on to push for a national bottle bill. Oregon politicians then came up with a seminal law to remove 3,600 roadside billboards from Oregon highways. Later the Oregon legislature passed a prohibitive land-use law. Afterward, former Gov. Tom McCall wanted a national plan. "I've gotten down on my hands and knees in support of a National Land-Use Planning Act," he said in a 1974 speech, "but even the milquetoast version that finally got out of the House Interior Committee was vanquished by its unimaginative opponents."
There is no such lack of imagination here. Mandatory weatherization may be the most "imaginative" restrictive legislation yet to come out of Oregon. The tale of how it came about in the state's two largest cities tells a lot about what happens when government sets itself up as the arbiter of livability and quality of life.
Mandatory weatherization came to Portland as the centerpiece of a comprehensive Energy Conservation Policy calling for everything from reducing display lighting, streamlining solid waste routes, and offering incentives for car pooling to reforming land use policies toward greater density and imposing a city gas tax. Mayor Neil Goldschmidt proudly characterized the measure as "aggressive"—a term that admirers frequently use also to describe his tenure as a Portland policymaker.
By 1984, under the new law, no home could be sold, no rental unit rented to a new tenant, no commercial, industrial, or institutional building sold or remodeled, unless weatherized to city-prescribed standards. "This is, of course, the most vulnerable section of the Policy," noted Angus Duncan, the mayor's administrative assistant for policy, in a memo before the measure was passed. He advised the designers of the policy to be sure to remind people that it did not mean that all buildings had to be weatherized by 1984; action would be required only if they wanted to sell, rent, or remodel. The planners followed his advice, yet everyone, friend and foe alike, knowingly referred to the requirement as mandatory weatherization.
During the city council's August 1, 1979, debate on the policy, outgoing Mayor Neil Goldschmidt told why weatherization should be mandatory:
The most compelling argument is the simplest: fairness. The argument goes like this: You conserve by weatherizing your home, I do not; the energy I waste out of my attic and through my windows means another generating plant has to be built anyway—another oil well dug, anyway. The price of electricity and oil go up, and you save, but you end up paying for my decision to waste.
That's not fair. Everyone needs to do his or her share, so each of us benefits equally. The only way to assure this, is with mandatory conserving.…
On August 15, 1979, the city council passed the Portland Energy Conservation Policy. It was Neil Goldschmidt's last day as mayor. Shortly thereafter he would leave for Washington, D.C., to become Jimmy Carter's secretary of transportation.
Reactions to the policy formed into two fairly distinct camps. On one side were government leaders and the major news media, who almost uniformly praised it. On the other were many Portlanders who saw the policy as a threat not only to their pocketbooks but to their property rights.
"I built a new home in Portland in 1967," said opponent Eldon Dean to a local reporter. "It has four inches of fiberglass in the walls, eight in the ceiling. Every window is thermal-pane. The doors are weatherstripped.
"I believe in conservation. I have no selfish interest to serve. I just think the last thing we need is another large government bureaucracy on our backs, telling us what we have to do with our castle.
"Castle. That's what we used to think a man's home was, you know."
Opinions among Portlanders grew from a plurality to a large majority opposing mandatory weatherization. A poll taken when the measure was adopted found that Portlanders were against it by 43 to 41 percent, with 16 percent undecided. Several months later a poll found 66 to 28 percent opposed. In that same poll, the result among senior citizens—an estimated 40 percent of Portland's homeowners—was 73 to 17 percent against mandatory weatherization.
None of that deterred the supporters of the policy, nor did it dampen the enthusiasm of politicians from other localities. City Energy Advisor Marion Hemphill says he received 1,200–1,400 requests for copies of the policy from localities around the nation. A letter from the city of Seattle read: "It is an exciting document and evidences a great deal of hard work.…I hope you will take it as a compliment if we steal some of your ideas." This is the kind of attention that delights the Oregon First mentality. A Davis, California, official, having been sent an early draft of the policy, expressed a particular interest in "hearing about any mandatory ordinances or programs which the City adopts."
Two days after the policy was passed, on August 17, 1979, President Carter issued a statement praising "Portland's broad based and far-reaching energy conservation plan." A few weeks earlier Mayor Goldschmidt had received a letter from the Department of Energy commending him and his staff for "aggressively pursuing" energy conservation. "Your proposed policy," concluded the letter, "could well serve as a model for an energy conservation plan in any municipality in America."
A "GRAND EXPERIMENT"
I began to wonder about the Portland policy. Might the city have been running some kind of interference for Jimmy Carter's much-heralded National Energy Plan? During the August 1, 1979, hearings in Portland, Goldschmidt had capped off his case for mandatory weatherization with the warning: "There is the more compelling argument that Federal mandatory conservation requirements may not be too far off." How did Goldschmidt know that? I could never get a direct answer to that question; he has repeatedly refused an interview.
So I asked the key formulators of the policy—Energy Advisor Hemphill and Energy Policy Steering Committee Chairman Vern Rifer—whether Portland's measure was a federally inspired "trial balloon." They were quick to deny it and to assure me that the policy was home-grown. Both Hemphill and Rifer insisted that it was a response to severe energy shortages in Portland and throughout the Northwest. But there is evidence to suggest otherwise.
At least the financial impetus for the policy came from Washington, D.C. In 1975 Portland received $200,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to analyze the use of energy in the city and identify potential conservation measures.
"That is how we got into it," Hemphill told me. "It was our problem that we wanted solved. And the federal government merely assisted us monetarily." Yet in testimony before a Senate committee in October 1979, Hemphill characterized the HUD award as "a contract to develop the first local-level energy conservation planning methodology in the nation."
The result was the 11-volume study that provided the take-off point for Portland's eventual policy. In its Executive Summary of the study, Portland's Bureau of Planning noted the intended national impact: "The City of Portland can build upon this energy conservation plan to develop a model for the rest of the Northwest and, ultimately, for the rest of the nation."
The federal government proceeded to help in that effort. A case study of the Portland policy's development, prepared under the auspices of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, reports that in December 1979 HUD "invited Portland to apply for an Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG). Assistant Secretary Bob Embry was interested in funding the city's 'grand experiment.'" The next month, "a preliminary award of $3 million was made," although HUD and the city negotiated for months over the actual use of the funds.
The city's plans for the money called for subsidizing weatherization loans to building owners, marketing the policy to residents, and funding a nonprofit corporation established under the policy to implement it in the private sector. It was difficult to fit these plans into the scope of HUD's UDAG grants, normally awarded for construction projects, but eventually the city and HUD came to an agreement. HUD also provided funding for the Harvard report on Portland's policy. And the city received money from the Department of Energy and the Northwest Federal Regional Council to help its efforts to promote the plan among citizens.
Meanwhile, other parts of the federal government had been doing their share in the area of weatherization. Congress was busy devising tax incentives and government- or utility-subsidized loans for home conservation actions. It was also coming up with plans that bore suspicious similarities to the Portland Energy Conservation Policy.
In 1977 the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power put forward a bill requiring a federally sponsored energy audit at the time a building is put up for sale. If the building did not meet conservation standards-to be developed by HUD—mortgage financing by federally chartered or insured financial institutions would be prohibited.
In 1979, just as mandatory weatherization was coming into its own in Portland, Howard Metzenbaum (D–Ohio) in the Senate and Toby Moffett (D–Conn.) in the House introduced bills to prohibit federally insured financial institutions from financing the purchase of a residential building unless provided with an energy use audit prescribed by the Department of Energy (DOE), Metzenbaum also introduced a bill to block the sale of any residential building whose heating system had not been brought up to DOE efficiency standards.
Probably, these efforts are the "federal mandatory conservation" Goldschmidt was referring to in his testimony in August 1979. Thus we can see the important precedent Portland was setting. Whether by design or accident, it was fully in keeping with Oregon's tradition of being a "test pilot" for the rest of the nation.
If Portland's policymakers were proud of the content of their plan, they were equally proud of the way it came about. Concluding his testimony before a congressional committee, Marion Hemphill said: "I would like to say again here that the Portland experience is important to the Nation.…we have forged a new path, a new process, that government can use to satisfy our national energy problem." It was a process, he noted, "that welded a public/private partnership, a process that involved over 18 months and 3,000 hours of donated time of Portland residents."
With the HUD-funded study of the city's energy use in hand in 1977, Mayor Goldschmidt and the city council agreed to set up a 15-member Energy Policy Steering Committee to formulate a plan. After several meetings in early 1978, another 50 people were added to the committee, divided into six task forces.
The chairman of the committee was Vern Rifer, a Portland construction engineer and past president of the Oregon Environmental Council. Rifer told me that he, Goldschmidt, and a member of Goldschmidt's staff selected the committee members, many of them drawn from Portland's business community. Task force work was completed in August 1978, and nine months later the steering committee produced a Proposed Energy Policy that, according to Energy Advisor Hemphill, was reviewed by a total of 2,500 people in 40 public meetings.
But James Kuffner, an aide to Portland's new mayor, claims the outcome of the committee's formulations was pre-envisioned. "That was Neil's [Goldschmidt's] committee," he charges. "They can claim it was balanced, but basically, overall, it was preordained how it was going to turn out."
On the most controversial feature of the entire policy, mandatory weatherization, the evidence bears him out. Most Portlanders apparently don't know it, but the Residential Task Force (the body assigned to look into residential conservation) never recommended mandatory weatherization either to the steering committee or to the city council.
Looking over its report to the Energy Policy Steering Committee, I found that the task force recommended various educational and incentive programs but urged that "no mandatory programs should be initiated before the success of the other approaches has been measured." The point was repeated several times in the report and emphasized again in conclusion: "The Task Force decided against mandatory retrofit measures."
To double-check, I phoned Mark Teppola, chair of the Residential Task Force. "Did your task force ever recommend mandatory weatherization?" I asked. "Well, I hate to say this," he replied, "because I support the overall plan, but I would have to say we never did."
I asked both Steering Committee Chair Rifer and Energy Advisor Hemphill if the Residential Task Force had recommended mandatory weatherization (by this time I knew that it hadn't). Rifer insisted that it had. Hemphill said he couldn't remember.
Portland realtor Jack Medak is a former member of a group advising Portland's Energy Commission, which was established as part of the Energy Conservation Policy. Now he is a bitter critic of the policy. He tells why: "The flavor I got was that logic and reason weren't going to convince them; they had already decided what they were going to do. We came out with our recommendations, they were presented to the Energy Commission, and it was discussed for maybe 15 seconds. We had put in hundreds of hours of, quote, citizen input that were absolutely, totally meaningless."
Despite supporters' frequent reference to "broad citizen involvement" in Portland's policy, it seems that its prime movers didn't much intend to pay attention to citizens' recommendations. For sure this is true of mandatory weatherization. It is apparent that many city government people simply felt that mandates are the only way to achieve weatherization in Portland. One city staff member revealed the prevailing mentality when he spoke to the author of Harvard's case study of Portland's energy policy, drawing an analogy with the city's actions after the volcanic eruption of nearby Mt. Saint Helens: "On Monday, the city asked all parking lot owners to wash down their lots. About 5% complied. On Wednesday, the City Council passed an ordinance saying it had to be done by next Monday or they would levy $500 fines. Next Monday the lots were clean. What happened?…the threat scared them.…Mandatory weatherization will work the same way."
The record of citizen involvement is also marred by the fact that at least some of the people who formulated the Portland policy could not fail to profit from it financially in the future. Looking over the list of people who imposed mandatory weatherization on Portland citizens, one finds such professional affiliations as financial institutions, hardware stores, construction companies, and a carpenters' union. As Rifer says, in selecting committee members they tried to "target people who had some knowledge of the subject and could contribute to the evolution of the problem [sic]."
But this natural and reasonable approach, as has been discovered of all levels of government regulation, is plagued with the potential for conflict of interest. When I checked out some of the businesses and organizations who sent representatives to formulate the energy policy, I found that many of them were either directly or indirectly involved or had past involvement in the weatherization business. Some financed the work, others analyzed the economic value of the work, others sold products for the work, and some even performed the work. Thus mandatory weatherization would force many Portland citizens (many of them poor and elderly) to help fill the coffers of some of Portland's thriving business interests.
And how much money would Portland citizens have to come up with in order to pay for weatherization? The law passed by the city council specifies "a 10-year simple payback criterion"; owners would have to take whatever energy-saving measures would pay for themselves (including interest costs on any loan) in 10 years in lower energy bills.
The law does not mention how much weatherization is likely to cost homeowners. One news report attributed to city officials a figure of $1,400 per household, but former Energy Commission advisor Jack Medak says that $3,000 is the figure he heard most often while working with the commission. Phone calls to Portland firms involved in weatherization work produced estimates ranging from $2,000 to $5,000.
The HUD-funded study in Portland found that 72 percent of the city's 157,000 housing units are single-family homes and 67 percent "were built before 1950 and are likely to be energy inefficient." By these figures, a conservative estimate of the number of homes requiring weatherization is 75,740. At a low average cost of $2,000, this means that Portland's single-family homeowners alone could pay a total of at least $151 million. And this does not include expenditures required also of the owners of rental, commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings.
Of course, all this conservation is intended to save people money, but the irony is that it may not save money at all. As a citizen pointed out to the city council during hearings on the policy, the way utility rates are determined by regulators means that too much conservation may cause utilities to raise their rates. I asked John Lobdell, of the Oregon State Utility Commission, about this. If a utility had no new customers and existing customers reduced consumption, he admitted, the per unit retail cost "would have to go up." But he insisted that such a rate increase is "a highly theoretical result."
Such a possibility, however, has been real enough to figure into federal energy conservation schemes. A Residential Energy Efficiency Plan proposed by Sen. Bill Bradley (D–N.J.) in 1979 included provision for a tax credit for utilities "if the conservation program causes a revenue loss to the utility company because of reduced residential demand that cannot be offset either by saving on fuel…or by finding new…customers."
For many Portlanders, though, the number-one objection to mandatory weatherization was its threat to individual freedom. Even Mayor Goldschmidt recognized that it is a threat. At a press conference unveiling the plan in May 1979 he stated, according to a newspaper account, that it "would be a significant erosion of private property rights." Marion Hemphill confirmed to me that Goldschmidt said this.
For Frank Ivancie, who cast the lone city council vote against the energy policy, this issue was decisive. He explained in a public statement that he believed most Portland residents would be weatherizing voluntarily (again, Goldschmidt agreed). But, he countered, mandatory weatherization "is a dangerous intervention into our citizens' lives.…If the government can dictate how and when we may sell our homes, it can say, for example, 'Unless you ride a bus twenty-five percent of the time, you can't own a car.' Such a policy continues to move us toward 'statism' and that, I am not prepared to accept. Freedom is a precious heritage that can be easily lost."
For some people, though, having Portland be the first in the nation to adopt an "aggressive, comprehensive" energy conservation plan was more important than individuals' rights. "Freedom," quipped Goldschmidt in defense of the policy during a hearing, "is a concept we have defined and redefined as a nation over the 200 plus years we have been here."
POINTING AT THE MOON
Within a year and a half, mandatory weatherization had moved 100 miles south to Oregon's second-largest city. On February 9, 1981, the Eugene City Council passed an ordinance requiring city-specified modifications of all single-family homes and of apartment buildings of up to four units. Weatherization becomes part of the city's housing code on January 1, 1985, with inspection for compliance occurring whenever an individual requests a hook-up of electrical service after a change of residence. Inspections are to be done by the city's utility, the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB).
Once again, the Oregon First mentality was much in evidence. The local newspaper announced that Eugene had become "a national leader in community-level conservation efforts." In public testimony in favor of the ordinance, a former city council member exulted that other communities would now look to Eugene as "a model and for leadership."
In that same hearing, the city's technology coordinator gave a rationale similar to Portland's for making weatherization mandatory. "Those who do not weatherize are hurting the rest of the community," he said. "And there are some who believe that the community has a right to insure that the community's resources are not wasted."
Having by this time been involved for some months in investigating Portland's mandatory weatherization law, I wondered whether the people who designed and passed Eugene's ordinance may have had liaisons with the people in Portland. And, indeed, various people who worked on the ordinance confirmed this. But, I was to find that the origin of the Eugene mandatory plan is much more remote than Portland, Oregon. In fact, it can be traced all the way back to London, England.
London is where the late British economist Ernst Schumacher founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group in 1966. "Intermediate technology," better known as "appropriate technology," is hard to define—Ernst Schumacher says it is. In an article in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1979, he wrote: "The Buddhists have a nice expression: they say that Buddhism is the finger pointing at the moon. The moon is the thing, Buddhism simply directs your attention to it. So a phrase such as 'appropriate technology'…is simply a finger pointing at the moon. And the moon can't be fully described, though it can be pointed out in terms of specific situations." The rest of Schumacher's article is similarly imprecise.
The April–May 1977 newsletter of the Center for Community Economic Development attempts a more precise rendition of appropriate technology. It explains that in underdeveloped countries "too capital intensive and too sophisticated" technology has been "ill-suited to local conditions and resources." To solve this problem, Schumacher's ITDG organization "began to develop technologies and techniques that were less expensive, could utilize local labor and materials, and could produce smaller quantities at the same unit cost."
The appropriate technology concept, notes the CCED newsletter, is not limited to technology but "also encompasses processes that stress self-help, community-building, and democracy in the workplace." The article goes on to recommend suitable types of community development, democratic enterprises, suggesting that "energy conservation is a logical beginning." Workers "can easily be trained to perform energy house audits" and "could do the installation of conservation measures."
The success of Schumacher's ITDG, says the newsletter, "has inspired the creation of appropriate technology centers and institutes throughout the world." And it is thus that our story moves from London to Butte, Montana. There, in 1976, the National Center for Appropriate Technology was founded on a $3-million grant from the federal government to promote appropriate technology in low-income communities in the United States. And prior to the advent of mandatory weatherization in Eugene, the center gave $146,000 to…the Whiteaker Community Council (WCC) of Eugene, "a representative body for one of Eugene, Oregon's central neighborhoods."
I used to live in the Whiteaker neighborhood. It was a nice place to live, even though it was not an upper-class neighborhood. My rent was pretty good, for a decent apartment located on a butte overlooking a beautiful view of a park by the Willamette River.
WCC literature, though, describes my old neighborhood as a "low-income, center-city area" populated by "disadvantaged families." Maybe some of the folks fit that description, but since Eugene is a university town, many of my neighbors were either students or other members of the "voluntary poor"—artists, craftspeople, '60s burnouts, people who tended to mind their own business. No one would have thought of me and my neighbors as underdeveloped third-worlders—except the intellectual Brahmins who decided to bring us "appropriate technology" through mandatory weatherization.
In 1976, city officials decided to dramatically expand the role of city government in Eugene by offering neighborhood organizations like the Whiteaker Community Council quasi-governmental status. The object of Resolution No. 2554 was to move such groups "beyond just the simple role of commenting" on city proposals. Now, they would be able to take "an active role…in the local government's decision-making processes." This involvement could include the development of "neighborhood plans and proposals with respect to land-use, zoning, parks, open space and recreation, annexation, housing, community facilities, transportation and traffic, public safety, sanitation, and other activities."
All of this sounds like civic-minded, grassroots government, but the resolution also provided tremendous political opportunities to Eugene city officials. To gain the necessary recognition, a neighborhood meeting must be held to produce a "neighborhood governing document." Upon approval of the document by the city council, "the neighborhood organization is then recognized as the official voice of that neighborhood area." Thus the Eugene City Council now had the opportunity to give "official voice" to those people who are willing to form a cheering section for its policies. By definition, everyone else became unofficial.
On April 18, 1979, the city council, by approving an amended charter submitted by the Whiteaker Community Council, recognized it as the official voice of me and all my neighbors. Prior to the city's approval of the new charter, relations had been going predictably well between the city and the WCC. In fact, in December 1978 a city department even provided legal advice to WCC president Jim McCoy. McCoy wanted a position with WCC's new economic development arm, which was, via the city, coming in to some community development block grant funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Eugene's Community Development Supervisor Paula Oss wrote: "HUD considers it a clear conflict of interest for the Whiteaker Community Council to hire its own president.…In order to defuse the situation, the [City] Attorney suggests that:
- You resign as WCC president, effective immediately.…
- The WCC must accept your resignation.…
- The Council very carefully follow its personnel policies in the posting, interviewing and hiring for [the position].…"
Jim McCoy went on to become executive director of the WCC Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO), chartered as a nonprofit corporation in July 1979.
NEDCO's articles of incorporation state that its primary purpose is "to raise the economic, educational, and social levels of underprivileged residents of the Whiteaker Community in Eugene, Oregon." Assuring its compliance with laws governing nonprofit organizations, the articles also stipulate that "no substantial part of the activities of the Corporation shall be the carrying on of propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation." But NEDCO's people were soon to be intimately involved in bringing mandatory weatherization to Eugene.
In mid-summer 1979 the Whiteaker Community Council received its $146,000 grant from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). The object was to fund feasibility plans for "appropriate local production…of food, energy, and other basic necessities." Over a third of the grant went to NEDCO for its Recycling Project and Energy Project. (NEDCO as such was engaged in setting up limited-equity cooperative housing.)
The Energy Project was, according to a WCC brochure, to be working toward setting up Energy Services Company. "This neighborhood-based enterprise will insulate and weatherize existing buildings and install solar retrofits." Soon after the NCAT award, codirectors of the project were announced: Don Corson and Sam Sadler. "Don is a member of Oregon Appropriate Technology [OAT]," said a WCC news sheet, and "Sam has been Director of Lane County OAT. Both have been involved in the initial grant planning."
Meanwhile, the city of Eugene was going about its own planning. An Energy Conservation and Policy Board had been set up to recommend to the city council ways "to increase energy efficiency." Within a month of its first meetings in early 1980, mandatory weatherization had become the main, if not the sole, item on the board's agenda.
Having turned up evidence of WCC/NEDCO's great interest in the passage of a mandatory weatherization ordinance, I asked NEDCO director Jim McCoy how they had been so successful on that front. His candid answer: "We were fortunate enough to have an advocate in the city manager's office, Greg Page. He took our issue and sort of made it his own."
One of my sources called Greg Page the "champion" of the mandatory weatherization ordinance in Eugene. In my interview with him, Page called himself the "staff person on this particular ordinance to the Energy Conservation Policy Board." He said he began working on the ordinance in September 1979 and worked on it over a period of three or four months. During that time, mandatory, not voluntary, weatherization was in the forefront of the city's work—not surprising, given Page's close work with NEDCO employees Corson and Sadler.
"I did a lot of the background work on developing the proposals for the ordinance," said Sam Sadler when I interviewed him. "My main focus was on the weatherization ordinance development, and Don's was on the Whiteaker Energy outlook. He worked a lot on the weatherization ordinance, too. He worked on it particularly after the beginning of the Whiteaker [Energy] Project [July 1979] and got the city council and they started working on it."
When the city "suddenly decided that energy was a top priority to them and they established an Energy Conservation Policy Board," he continued, "it was sort of fortuitous that we had been doing all of the background work." Sadler said later that he and Corson had conferred with the Portland people and with "people all over the country" and "quickly decided that the only way to get weatherization was through a mandatory program."
Thus it was quite accurate for Rain magazine to identify Corson and Sadler, authors of an article on rental weatherization, as coordinators of the WCC Energy Project, which "is working to have a mandatory weatherization ordinance adopted by the City of Eugene." The fact that they were quite open about their involvement with the ordinance indicates that Corson and Sadler probably did not know that, as NEDCO employees, they were apparently working in substantial violation of its articles of incorporation.
By Greg Page's account, however, Sadler and Corson had very little to do with formulating and pushing through the ordinance. When I asked him how much involvement there had been with Whiteaker and NEDCO, his quick answer was, "None." The only thing he went on to mention was that "the Whiteaker Energy Group was able to—the Neighborhood held a meeting in October or August of 1979 in the City Council chambers and held a panel of speakers." (This was a public forum on weatherization, Sadler told me, that "we staged…to get the discussion going on it.")
Here is what Greg Page should have told me:
1. He should have told me that Corson and Sadler were invited to make presentations at one of the first meetings of the Energy Policy Conservation Board, on January 23, 1980.
2. He should have told me about a memo he received from Don Corson dated February 18, 1980, which I subsequently acquired. That memo from Corson thanks Page for the opportunity to comment on his staff briefing paper, "Weatherization of Existing Residences," prepared for the board. The memo then goes on to correct Page's grammar and offer substantive suggestions:
Why not require implementation of conservation measures (virtually) right away? Enforcement could start at any arbitrary future date.…
Could problems (non-energy-related code enforcement) arise if housing inspectors are used to enforce the program? Seattle, I believe, is proposing the use of "weatherization" inspectors, who are not "qualified" to identify non-energy code violations. This device could avoid extraneous opposition to the proposal.
Might it be easier and less irksome to the public to inspect for compliance at some "natural" turnover point (such as change in occupancy), as opposed to intruding into lives arbitrarily?
The tone of the memo—"if we permit…," "we may be unintentionally providing…," and so on—makes it clear that, as Jim McCoy had told me, Page had taken what was NEDCO's issue and "made it his own."
3. Page also should have told me that Sam Sadler, too, helped in the preparation of his staff report to the board on mandatory weatherization—at least if we can take as evidence Page's thanking him for such help at a March 5 meeting of the board.
4. He should have told me that Corson attended and testified at the March 5 meeting and that Sadler attended and testified at the April 9 meeting and again at the May 14 meeting (along with an architect from Oregon Appropriate Technology), all meetings at which the board was hammering out the mandatory weatherization law. At the March meeting, according to the board's minutes, "Mr. Corson stated that he was very impressed by the proposal. He felt that the requirements could be regarded as additions to the Housing Code."
By this time the two were, according to Sadler, no longer "technically" employed by NEDCO. The NCAT-funded project ran until the end of February 1980, at which time the relationship between NEDCO and Sadler and Corson became "more informal."
On February 1, Whiteaker Energy, Inc.—the weatherization business à la appropriate technology that the Energy Project had been assigned to develop—filed its articles of incorporation with the state of Oregon. WEI was certified on February 7.
A Whiteaker Community newsletter at this time referred to WEI as NEDCO's "own energy services company." NEDCO owned one-third of the company's stock (another third was sold to investors and the rest set aside for the workers to earn). And NEDCO, Jim McCoy told me, "sent representatives" to sit on WEI's board. Bill Snyder, who became general manager, and Sam Sadler told me that Don Corson was one of those representatives for at least a month, serving as chair of the board.
Thus was Corson, at the time he was helping Page with his mandatory weatherization proposal, not only working for NEDCO at the same time as he was working for the passage of legislation. He was also working, at NEDCO's direction, for a profit-making firm that stood to gain a great deal from the legislation.
The law that the city of Eugene passed in February 1981 did not require, as Corson had suggested, the implementation of weatherization "right away." It did, however, settle on the utility rather than the city's housing inspectors enforcing the program, on inspection for compliance at the "'natural' turnover point" of a change in occupancy, and on making the requirements part of the city's housing code.
Thus NEDCO was fabulously successful in its efforts to get a mandatory weatherization ordinance passed. That is what tends to happen when your parent organization is an "official voice" of the people.
NEDCO's business venture didn't fare as well. As passage of the weatherization ordinance became imminent, WEI's business projections brightened. In December 1980, two WEI representatives testified in favor of the ordinance at a city council hearing (so did Corson and a member of the Whiteaker Community Council's board). That same month, the WCC newsletter projected $200,000 in sales for WEI over the next two years. By February 1981, when the ordinance passed, the newsletter had upped the figure to $1 million just for 1981.
Shortly thereafter, however, Whiteaker Energy went out of business. Sam Sadler says its demise was sometime in June. The June issue of the WCC newsletter didn't admit that the firm was out of business but did say that the company was "deeply in debt."
When I called Cecil Strange, a NEDCO board member, to ask about WEI's problems, he at first didn't want to talk about it. But then he said, "The corporation went out of business and left a lot of unpaid debts and there may be lawsuits arising." He went on to say that "now there are scores of houses in this neighborhood that have material liens on their houses even though they paid the company for all the work that was done. The company never paid for the materials.…They lost tens of thousands of dollars of shareholders' money; they left tens of thousands of debt, tens of thousands of dollars of IRS debt, and they left liens on people's houses, people who paid the whole bill."
When I asked Strange why this happened, he said the business was "totally mismanaged." When I asked McCoy for his assessment, he also blamed "poor management."
But Bill Snyder, the man whom NEDCO hired as general manager, did not appreciate this role as a scapegoat. Throughout my interview with him, he kept stressing that it was the NEDCO people who had ultimate control of WEI: "They controlled it from the beginning. They sat on their one-third; they controlled the board; they didn't do anything to bring in the private investors on the board."
When WEI went out of business, Snyder says, "The board didn't officially dissolve the business, didn't shut off the phones, didn't notify the creditors, didn't notify clients. Everybody kind of went home and nobody went back to work."
Thus ended my old neighborhood's experiments in "democracy in the workplace" and "appropriate technology." Only a few months earlier, the WCC people had written in their newsletter that the National Center for Appropriate Technology "speaks of [WEI] as 'the model energy conservation enterprise in the United States.'" But somehow, "pointing at the moon" just hadn't helped my old neighborhood.
* * *
In November 1980, by petition of 20,000 citizens, Portland's voters went to the polls to decide whether mandatory weatherization could be imposed by the city council. By 80,000 to 65,000, they passed a city charter amendment prohibiting mandatory weatherization unless approved by a later vote of the people. In August 1981 a determined Portland Energy Office spokesman told me: "The passage of this widely misunderstood measure simply means another step in the implementation process." The city's strategy, he says, is "to get as many people as possible to weatherize voluntarily" (via the generous federally funded loan program) and then to "convinc[e] those who have weatherized that it is in their interest to force the rest of the people to weatherize."
In Eugene the demise of Whiteaker Energy, Inc., was the subject of a brief and superficial spot on the local radio news. NEDCO people placed the blame on WEI manager Bill Snyder, and that, says Snyder, was because they had not yet finalized "a half-million dollar loan" from the federal Consumer Co-op Bank, soon to be dismantled by President Reagan, for NEDCO's housing projects. "All that property that they told you they bought is leveraged to the hilt and they have got these big balloon payments coming up. That money is coming from the Feds.…They didn't want that to be threatened by NEDCO's ineptness with this other venture." The city's Housing Project Coordinator confirms that NEDCO was in for "I believe…$350,000" of Co-op Bank funds. "I understand they got some of the last money," she says.
In November 1981 Harper's magazine published an article by respected journalist William Tucker publicizing the end of the energy crisis, thanks to Reagan's decision to end oil price controls. Oil and natural gas shortages in the '70s, Tucker showed, "were nothing but the result of price controls" maintained by politicians with one aim—"keeping cheap gas flowing to the consumers. Washington was filled with liberal congressmen singing the joys of conservation and wringing their hands about foreign dependence. Yet not one of them was ever willing to accept the simple formula that would have ended the whole dilemma—paying a market price for our own oil."
Gaines Smith is a free-lance writer and editor. Among his published fiction works is "Welfare Department," in the recently released Thought Probes: Philosophy through Science Fiction (Prentice-Hall). This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.
THE HAZARDS OF SEALED HOMES
Insulate those ceilings! Seal those cracks! Tighten up that house! That, a lot of politicians have been telling us, is the way to save energy. What they don't tell us is that it may also be the way to contract lung cancer, skin problems, asthma, and other respiratory diseases.
These problems result from the build-up of dangerous concentrations of substances, especially radon gas and formaldehyde, in the air of a sealed house. In a typical home—what Amory Lovins calls an "energy sieve"—the leakage of air in and out results in a complete air exchange about once an hour. But in a tightly sealed "energy-efficient" house, it may take up to 10 hours to exchange the air. That allows concentrations of the substances up to 10 times higher than normal to accumulate.
The potentially most dangerous substance is radon, which is present in soil and rocks. Radon seeps into houses from the soil around pipes, through drains, through floor-wall joints, and through cracks, as well as entering directly from the water and gas lines and from granite building materials. If the house has been built underground or partly earth-sheltered to save more energy, the radon seepage will be even greater. Likewise, the use of rocks as a thermal storage device adds to the radon seepage.
A number of studies have measured the radon levels in energy-efficient houses, both in the United States and in Sweden (where the problem was first noted). Some of these concentrations are the same order of magnitude as the maximum occupational exposure allowed uranium miners in the United States. (Standards for occupational exposure are always less stringent than those for members of the general public.)
How harmful are such concentrations? No one really knows, because this is another case of low-level radiation (see "Is Any Radiation Too Much Radiation?" REASON, July 1980) for which epidemiological data are not available. But the same people who enthusiastically support weatherization are often those who do assume that low-level radiation is a serious danger.
Radon and its decay products are alpha-emitters, which are biologically more hazardous than gamma- or beta-emitters. And radon has been implicated in lung cancer in uranium miners. Based on such cases and making certain assumptions about low-dosage exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a lifetime exposure to radon decay products at the .01 WL(working level) rate will cause a one percent increase in lifetime cancer risk. Some energy-efficient houses have radon concentrations high enough to result in 10 times that exposure—equivalent to the exposure to soldiers and Utah residents from nuclear weapons testing fallout. Sweden has already adopted .01 WL as a standard for household exposure, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning recommends that the same be done here.
The formaldehyde threat, while not life-threatening, is equally real. The substance outgasses from furniture, plywood, particle board, permanent-press clothing, and other common household items, and especially from urea formaldehyde foam insulation. About 600,000 homes have been insulated with this substance in the last few years, but in January the Consumer Product Safety Commission proposed banning it. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association links the insulation to skin diseases, respiratory problems, and asthma. As with radon, the problem in formaldehyde build-up is inadequate ventilation caused by tightening up the house.
The only feasible solution—other than not sealing the house in the first place—is to add a ventilation system heat-exchanger to the house, to restore air-exchange to preinsulation levels and use the outgoing air to warm the incoming air. Participants in a 1979 National Bureau of Standards roundtable discussion on the radon problem concluded that it is not yet known whether the added investment and operating costs (energy!) make such systems more cost effective than simply leaving the house "leaky" to begin with.
Radon in Buildings, National Bureau of Standards, Special Publication 581, Washington, D.C., June 1980.
"The Indoor Radiological Problem in Perspective," Henry Hurwitz, Jr., General Electric Technical Information Series, Report No. 81CRD025, Schenectady, N.Y., Feb. 1981.