What is in our AIR?

There has been a disturbing trend of gasoline odors in the NW neighborhood this past year.  As neighbors to the Industrial Sanctuary in NW Portland, we are pretty accustomed to the onslaught of nasty odors.  We even have developed our own key of association, to better help identify where they are coming from.  Overwhelmingly, most people experience the industrial odors emanating from ESCO, described variously as:  burnt toast, burning metal, and burning rubber.  But these acute and persistent gas odors are a different animal altogether.  

My first experience with the gas odor was last spring on May 23rd, 2009.  As I finished a run at Lower Macleay, I was walking up the little cut through from Upshur to Thurman that would be an extension of NW 29th.  As I emerged from the brush I was assaulted by the strong presence of a gas odor – to me it smelled like the gas that comes when the burner fails to light and the natural gas to the stove is on.  I was therefore not surprised to see later that day the Northwest Natural Gas truck across the street at my neighbor’s house.  She had also smelled it and was concerned there was a natural gas leak at her house or somewhere nearby.  I later learned that NWNG was called to the neighborhood over 100 times for the same reason.  It wasn’t until neighbors saw the van outside that they realized this was not just their home. At that time we were able to put it together that this was something affecting the whole neighborhood.  Even as disturbing as that was, most troubling was that despite repeated calls, and the ongoing persistence over two weeks, the neighbors never got a response and most significantly never got a conclusive answer as to the source of the odor.  Many things were ruled out, including NW natural gas customers, sewer or water problems, the fuel burning at the airport which happened at a different time and the wind patterns did not support that fumes from which would have carried into the neighborhood.

Whatever the source, this needs to be stopped.  If this is coming from a stationary gasoline or petroleum source such as any of the 536 petroleum tanks (more info here) in the industrial sanctuary, we are potentially being exposed to dangerous levels of benzene a known carcinogen linked to leukemia and other cancers.  We already know, with our high levels of benzene in gasoline that is not due to be lowered until 2012 through federal legislation, people near freeways in Portland are breathing nearly 40 times the legal limits of benzene (more on the Wyden backed federal legislation can be found in a 2007 Blue Oregon article here). And of course without an adequate monitoring network in our city, we really have no idea what our exposure is.  It makes it all the more critical that the city or the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has a plan of response, which includes:

1.  Establishing central response team that can receive citizen reports and send an investigator immediately.  Something that can react with the same efficacy as NW Natural Gas.

2. Establish real time permanent monitoring that can alert residents if there are dangerous levels of toxins in the air. 

3.  Find the source of these acute gasoline odor events in the neighborhoods surrounding the NW industrial sanctuary that most consistently and frequently report them.

To get this done, it is time to act.  We should write our Governor, our mayor, our state legislators, and the head of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality:

1. Governor Kulongoski http://governor.oregon.gov/Gov/contact_us.shtml
2. Mayor Adams: mayorsam@ci.portland.or.us
3. Representative Mitch Greenlick: greenlick.rep@state.or.us
4. Dick Pedersen (Director ODEQ): PEDERSEN.Dick@deq.state.or.us

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