Revisiting The Smokestack Effect

In March 2009, I stumbled across a report on the internet published by USA Today called the Smokestack Effect.  It was a ground breaking study that cross-referenced the federal Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data with school sitings, ranking the schools at greatest risk of cancer and non-cancer health effects due to air toxic exposures.  The findings, especially for us Portlanders, was alarming.  It underscored the risk to our children of toxic emissions from neighboring industrial facilities, in fact bringing to our attention that 35 Portland area schools were ranked in the bottom 5% in the nation air toxic hot spots.

The relevance all came back to me this week when DEQ called to alert me to the fact that EPA was now ready to present its report on the air monitoring study it conducted at my daughter’s school: Harriet Tubman.

As we prepare to witness the EPA response and analysis of the issue of toxic industrial emissions around schools, I think its a good time to revisit the original study:USA Today: The Smokestack Effect

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?

Short Term Air Toxics Benchmarks

On June 30th 2010, when the public comment period closed for the state’s decision on new air toxics benchmarks for mercury, manganese and lead, Neighbors for Clean Air delivered over 500 signatures demanding DEQ address short term spikes in toxic air emissions from regulated polluters.

Air Quality administrator, Andy Ginsburg met Neighbors for Clean Air members and State Representative Mitch Greenlick at the door of DEQ headquarters to accept our petition.  At that time, Ginsburg promised the state was going to address short-term benchmarks in the “near future.”

Well, apparently that day has come in the form of a meeting DEQ is calling:  Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee Meeting to Evaluate Less Than Annual Air Toxics Benchmarks Feasibility.

These benchmarks are the first step in our effort to see real change that will protect our neighborhoods and children from toxic air pollution emitted by regulated polluters. And here are the top 3 reasons why this is a critical  component of the campaign to reform how DEQ protects the public from regulated sources of toxic air pollution:

1. Compliance with annualized averages is not adequate protection of public health because it misses the dangerous spikes in emissions that children can be particularly vulnerable to during critical phases of development, and because the science behind this is just beginning to understand the synergistic impacts of multiple toxicants on critical stages of children’s development.

2. Currently our air toxics regulation allows polluters to have emissions spikes of dangerous toxicants like arsenic, manganese, chromium, and lead that hourly can register up to 300x the current benchmarks, and still be considered in compliance.

3. Currently our air toxics regulation allowed ESCO to have a complete failure of all baghouses for a 10-day period, which meant that unknown quantities of unfiltered uncaptured emissions were released directly into the neighborhood and still this did not trigger any violation of the emissions limits, since they are calculated on annualized averages set high enough to ensure that major upsets do not put the facility in violation.


  • Contact Governor Kitzhaber with the message that we want to see Oregon act now on meaningful air toxics benchmarks to protect our children from short term emissions spikes and plant failures.
  • Attend the meeting DEQ is calling: Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee Meeting to Evaluate Less Than Annual Air Toxics Benchmarks Feasibility
    Tuesday, April 19th 5-7pm, Oregon DEQ Headquarters, 811 SW 6th Ave.
  • Urge your friends, family and colleagues to sign the petition.

EPA releases latest National Air Toxics Assessment

EPA Cancer RIsk Model

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its latest data on air pollution called the National Air Toxics Assessment or NATA.  NATA is designed to provide estimates of the risk of cancer and other serious health effects from breathing (inhaling) air toxics in order to inform both national and more localized efforts to identify and prioritize air toxics, emission source types and locations which are of greatest potential concern in terms of contributing to population risk.

Again, this data corroborates the troubling and oft ignored issue of toxic air pollution in the Portland Metro area. And again, Oregon comes up with the third largest population at risk to toxic air behind California and New York.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has worked to address the negative impacts of toxic air through the development of the Portland Air Toxics Solutions program, or PATS. The advisory committee of same (PATSAC) is due to provide recommendations on pollution reduction efforts to realize the goal of reducing toxic emissions in the region to levels that would result in no more than 1 excess cancer per million risk.  You can read more about the state effort to address air toxics, and the response to the new NATA data at the DEQ website. Multnomah County leads the state in cancer risk due to toxic air pollution.

On top of cancer risks, NATA data also highlights the non-cancer risks of respiratory hazards due to toxic air pollution.


EPA/NATA website

DEQ/NATA information

Portland Air Toxics Solution Advisory Committee Mtg #8 recap

As the PATSAC process rounds the corner to its finish line stretch, the work of the committee is definitely getting more interesting. At the last two meetings, the quality of DEQ materials has been impressive, including the detailed PATS 2017 Pollutant Modeling Summary presented at the January 25th meeting, and from this last meeting, the first phase of examining potential reductions, which focused on point sources.

I recommend you visit the PATSAC website to see all the available documents.

As we get closer to the end of the process, our unofficial quorum of community and public health advocates is beginning to work more closely together to ensure that strategies protective of public health are solidly included in the final document, and that issues of environmental justice are addressed, as it is widely understood that not only do low-income communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of exposure, but often members of the community have limited access to resources to cope with the outcomes of the exposure.

This group, which includes neighborhood representatives like myself, and those from SE, North and NE Portland, Multnomah County Health, Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, and OPAL will continue to discuss how to maximize positive health impacts through the PATSAC recommendations.  That may sound obvious, but since PATS was charged with emissions reductions, it has been recognized that reducing health impacts might be tangential to reducing emissions.  But, as DEQ Air Quality Administrator Andy Ginsburg noted in a recent email exchange, the discussion beyond emissions reductions is both relevant and will likely be necessary as it is probably impossible to realize the reductions of some of the most harmful toxicants below the threshold of harmful health outcomes.  Per Andy’s email: “Where meeting the ABCs through emission reductions is not possible or feasible, I agree that it makes sense to quantify the gap and consider other approaches such as complimentary mitigation recommendations. I’m assuming that by mitigation we mean actions that are generally beneficial but either currently not measurable or not related to reducing emissions.”

The PATSAC is scheduled to meet monthly through July.  We will be going through all sources of emissions and seeing what reductions would be required to meet the benchmarks (ABC) and how that might be attributed to individual sources within each of the large sectors.