What is in our air?

Every day driving my daughters to school I pass eastbound over the Fremont Bridge. During many of these days as we are just about to exit onto Kerby, we have to pass through a dense dark gray “fog” created by the air emissions of a regulated polluter just below the bridge.  Some days the fog is so thick that its burnt rubber and metallic stench permeates right into the car, and we all lose visibility of anything out the windows for the few seconds it takes to travel through it.  Increasingly, I have become concerned about what may be in that plume, and when it is particularly strong I call the Department of Environmental Quality Odor Complaint to alert them. I am told the “steam plume” that I have witnessed from KF Jacobson, a permitted asphalt plant, is not in violation of their general air contaminant discharge permit (ACDP).  This permit allows the facility to put potentially 24 tons of particulate matter and 39 tons of volatile organic compounds in the air every year. The DEQ permit writer has also told that plume will have a dark grayish color depending on the ambient temperatures or due to the moisture contained in the rock products that are being dried as part of the asphalt process. It should not smell like burnt rubber or metal or anything.

I am beginning to think I have crossed over the crazy line, afraid of every shadow in every smoke stack plume that wafts from the hundreds of industrial facilities tucked among us in this funky mixed use wonderland we call living within the Urban Growth Boundary.

It takes a little crazy sometimes to protect our children.

Last year I was told by DEQ that there is a source of heavy metals including arsenic and cadmium near my daughter’s school that they just can’t explain.  This is unusual in Oregon, that monitoring data exists absent of any known source.  Too often its the other way around. For example, for years residents of the NW neighborhood voiced concern about strange odors and black dust coming from a nearby steel refinery.  But company and state representatives always said the same thing:  emissions from the facility, while not specifically monitored, do not exceed permitted limits based on the self-reported calculations the company provides the state. However, we learned from a study published in USA Today, that those same “legal” emissions put our neighborhood schools among the worst 2% in the nation of schools exposed to toxic industrial emissions.  We also learned from a test of a new monitoring device that can measure 24/7 emissions of heavy metals on the fenceline of large facilities, that this same steel refinery at times emits spikes of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, manganese and chromium 300x the health based benchmarks.

Last year my daughters’ school, Harriet Tubman on N. Flint, was chosen as one of 63 schools across the nation to be included in EPA’s school air monitoring program.  This was an initiative launched in the wake of the study of industrial air pollution and schools published by USA Today, which showed that thousands of US schools, including almost every Portland area school, are situated in industrial toxic hot spots.

I have seen preliminary data from that EPA monitoring that seems to say, despite being situated right above the I5 where congestion builds due to the Rose Quarter-84 interchange, monitoring levels of air toxics showed nothing of concern.  Except there is still that cadmium that we can’t explain. Of course, I wonder about testing protocol and the validity of 24 hour averages when we know that traffic congestion would spike at certain hours.

Which is why I keep watching this plume and keep calling the DEQ to complain.  If we don’t pay attention, who is?

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