On Thursday, the March NW Examiner featured an astounding article about the air quality issue in the NW neighborhood. For most observers it seems like stating the obvious. But for those of us that live and breathe in close proximity to industrial facilities, routinely cleaning the black dust off our porches and smelling the pungent metallic odors with regularity-it is nothing short of miraculous. With stubborn resolve for over a decade, our regulatory agency has repeated the mantra: industry is less than 10% of the problem.
Knowing that history was no small part of my resolve last spring when I took on this issue. When I came across the study published in USA Today, showcasing industrial emissions in isolation, several neighborhoods in Portland were clearly ground zero toxic industrial hotspots of the worst kind. My first thought was: “This is the game changer. This is when we finally can take on the hard work of specifically mitigating the problem of industrial air toxics.”
Unfortunately, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, was not ready to change so fast. In the first of many email exchanges that I received almost exactly a year ago on March 26th, 2009, Cory Ann Wind, NW region Air Quality Manager reiterates:
The study that you are referring to is the one that originally appeared in the USA Today in December 2008. The study uses information based on the Toxics Release Inventory, a chemical reporting database only for larger industry. But to fully understand air pollution, information from all sources of air pollution – industrial and business activities, cars and trucks, home and commercial heating, and population activities such as open burning, landscape maintenance and solvent use – must be taken into account. Typically, industrial activities are a very small (less than 10%) piece of the pollution puzzle.
This response, or specifically, this resolve the agency had to deflect attention from industry has been repeated many times since that first exchange. Most notably, in two legislative hearings (Aug ’09 & Sept. ’09) on air pollution and health that intended to examine the issue of the effect of industrial emissions on public health, Andy Ginsburg, DEQ Air Quality administrator instead showed up with a long slide presentation on the hazards of wood smoke.
There have been many points during this past year that signaled neighbors were gaining momentum on the air quality issue, but none can be more significant than this point when the regulatory agency takes the critical first step in acknowledging the problem out loud. I can not fathom why it has taken this long, and what might have triggered the change in Andy Ginsburg’s heart to make such a statement, one for which he clearly understands the implications and effect on the discussion. I do think back to my first encounter that I described in a posting last July with DEQ Director Dick Pedersen. All present at that meeting who had worked with and more likely against DEQ for years, were impressed with the relatively new director’s sincerity and integrity to be a change agent, and to reassert the protection of the environment into the mission of the Department of Environmental Quality.
I think it is clear that Dick Pedersen is the real deal.
- Sending staff to the North Portland area around the University of Portland to investigate the current (3/1) odor. Staff identified various odors characterized as “autoclave”, “roofing tar”, “exhaust”. No specific follow-up.
- Sending staff to Swan Island to follow up on a lead we received from Northwest Natural Gas. A Northwest Natural Gas leakage inspector said maintenance being done on the Going Bridge to Swan Island may have been the source. Staff observed that grinding of concrete was being done but would not produce an odor. However, the crew he spoke to mentioned a strong “gear oil” smell coming from the rail yard earlier on Monday morning, 3/1. We have contacted Union Pacific Rail Yard about this, but have not heard back from them.
- Sending staff to NW Portland to investigate the odors from the weekend complaints. No odors were detected at the time in the field, but staff recommended follow-up with Carson Oil and Myers Containers located on NW St. Helens Road. Permit staff will be following up on these items.
- Communication between staff and Vigor (formerly Cascade General shipyard) to investigate their oily wastewater treatment plant. This treatment process is a potential source of fuel odors. They were operating on Sunday and Monday but immediately ceased operation when we notified them of the complaints we were receiving and of the “inversion” conditions that were in place. The permit writer will follow up on this.
- The Northwest Region Air Quality duty officer was devoted exclusively to taking phone calls all day (3/1) for additional incoming complaints and getting back to complainants with information.
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: email@example.com
3. Representative Mitch Greenlick: firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Dick Pedersen (Director ODEQ): PEDERSEN.Dick@deq.state.or.us