By Stephyn Quirke

For nearly 100 years, residents in Southeast Portland have fought the Brooklyn rail yard.

In 1924 several residents complained that the noise of train assemblies was waking them up in the night and interfering with the enjoyment of their property, and sued the Southern Pacific railroad, which was taken over by Union Pacific in 1996. Although dismissed in 1930 after a city zoning code was passed, the suit came back in 1952, this time backed by the Eastmoreland Garden Club, and in 1956 a judge issued an injunction forcing the rail yard to limit assembly of trains to within 1/4th of a mile south of Reedway Street.

In 2011, however, Union Pacific asked a judge to lift that injunction in light of more recent laws and court rulings that limit community control over railroads, saying the injunction prevented them from investing $75 million in desired upgrades to the yard. The challenge to community control has not been directly answered, yet. Instead, a settlement was reached by the neighborhood associations and Union Pacific. In exchange for lifting the injunction, the neighborhoods required the yard to purchase newer and quieter diesel equipment that filters particulate matter before it reaches the air – where it causes heart disease, asthma, and various cancers. To ensure the railroad company’s compliance, the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association chair also purchased a small helicopter that can monitor engines at the yard.

The latest settlement is a delicate truce in what appears to be the longest running lawsuit in Oregon’s history, but that peace may not last for long. According to the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association’s Chair, Robert McCullough, Union Pacific’s financial documents show that their Chicago to Portland traffic is up 90% this year – all of which comes through the Brooklyn yard. “That’s a lot of emissions – and it more than offsets the improvements we’ve made with new diesel equipment,” said McCullough, energy economist and chair of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association.

These concerns are even more alarming in the broader context of air quality. According to data from the Clean Air Task Force, Oregon has the 6th highest diesel pollution of any state in the union, and Multnomah County leads the state. Put another way, Portland Metro’s diesel particulate levels exceed the EPA’s acceptable risk standard by more than 100 times. It is well known that exposure to the fine particulate matter released from unfiltered diesel engines creates an excessive risk of neurodevelopment disorders, asthma, heart attacks, and cancer – particularly for those with direct exposure. California passed comprehensive legislation to reduce these emissions and related health impacts in 2007, but similar attempts in Oregon have faltered, leaving many neighborhoods to deal with local hotspots, like the Brooklyn yard, on their own.

The yard’s growth in traffic is ominous news for residents, particularly those with increased health risk, like children and the elderly. Just south of the Brooklyn yard sits the Westmoreland Union Manor – a retirement home with 400 elderly residents. The Manor sits just beyond the southern boundary of the original injunction order, which in the past limited both noise and emissions released from idling, but with the new settlement agreement those residents will likely experience far more noise, and more exposure to air toxins.

Another major concern for local residents is the Precision Castparts Corporation (PCC), an aerospace and weapons manufacturer. In May of 2011, an accident at one of PCC’s Portland facilities dropped a huge chunk of titanium into a vat of acid, causing an orange toxic cloud to drift out of the plant and float across Milwaukie. Firefighters warned residents to take shelter, and Clackamas County used a reverse 9-1-1 to warn residents, but officials at Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications did not know how to activate the system, leaving many residents in the dark. After 32 hours the crisis was over, and PCC was eventually fined $600 for two “serious” OSHA violations related to the incident. In 2012 they were cited again, this time for 32 OSHA violations totaling $26,050 in penalties. After following up on a worker complaint, OSHA determined that the company had a habit of prioritizing speed over worker safety.

After the 2011 incident a spokesperson assured the media that residents had nothing to fear from their operations, saying, “If it’s safe for the employees to work here, then it’s safe for the neighborhood.” The 2011 accident sent four people to the hospital, including two firefighters. And in 2001, a worker died after falling into a tank filled with high-temperature caustic chemicals.

Pressure has been building against PCC since a 2013 study from the University of Massachusetts ranked them as the country’s #1 toxic air polluter, which drew unanimous concern from across the city. At a community meeting on April 10th last year, dozens of residents learned that the only actions the company had taken in response to the study was to criticize its data and methodology. PCC runs casting facilities along Johnson Creek, and makes enormous metal casts for jet engines, gas turbines, and the U.S. military – including components of the howitzer – a type of artillery weapon. Some of the weapons produced at PCC are so special they are considered “classified materials”, which is why PCC does not allow tours from the general public.

In their conflict with Union Pacific and Precision Castparts, Southeast Portland residents have had to grapple with two sets of problems: the connection between urban air pollution and health problems, and the connection between neighborhood associations and real action that cuts pollution. Proving health impacts often requires citizen science and air monitoring to be funded by neighborhoods, while actual pollution reduction requires not only data, but commitment to advocacy and litigation. In more recent years, researchers are adding a third and vital question to the mix: the relation between local pollution and global climate change.

It’s well known that old diesel engines like the ones at the Brooklyn yard produce black carbon – a very potent greenhouse gas that can be captured with the same filters that handle particulate matter. Professor Julie Fry at Reed College has also researched the effects of nitrous oxide on the formation of aerosols, which may promote atmospheric cooling.

But now there is an even more direct connection linking local health to climate change, as Eastmoreland residents are reporting unit trains full of oil – or what train engineers call “bomb trains” – rolling through their neighborhoods. Such trains have been involved in numerous fiery derailments in recent years, most famously in Lac Megantic, Quebec, where an oil train derailed and incinerated half the city’s downtown area, killing 47 people. The sudden appearance of these trains is the outcome of quiet agreements between oil and rail companies to facilitate expansion of the bakken oil fields in North Dakota, and the tar sands fields in Alberta, Canada, so that more oil can move to West Coast refineries and on to Asian markets. Knowledge of such arrangements, and the deadly risks they pose, is increasingly putting communities on edge.

One recent Reed College graduate, Austin Weisgrau, said he was sad but not surprised to learn that the Union Pacific railroad is moving bomb trains right next to his school. “This is really not unacceptable,” Weisgrau said, “The University is a putting together hundreds of people who want to put knowledge to good use, but right next door we have thoughtless businesses putting their profits ahead of our air, our health, and our atmosphere. We know these businesses plan to have accidents, and that these trains derail sooner or later — Lac Megantic should have been our wake-up call.”

Kevin Myers, Director of Strategic Communications at Reed College, says the school has spent several million dollars restoring the canyon and local watershed, including the headwaters of Crystal Springs Creek, and $4.5 million to reduce carbon emissions. Their primary focus, however, has been on the college’s impact on the environment – not on existing risks in the community. “We do care quite a bit about air quality,” Myers said.

Reed College became involved in the Brooklyn yard dispute in 2013, when chemists led by Professor Juliane Fry installed monitoring equipment just a few blocks from the yard, hoping to learn more about its effect on local air quality.  The monitoring project has now collected over a year’s worth of data, and Professor Fry hopes to have an analysis completed by the end of summer.

As the science of air toxins moves forward, residents continue to question what an oil spill would mean for the neighborhood, and what it means to be in the ‘blast zone’. “It’s really going to be hell for the watershed,” Weisgrau lamented, “those tracks go right over the cleanest water in Portland, Crystal Springs, and they also run through some of the lowest income neighborhoods in Portland, which always bear the largest burden of environmental violence.”

With increasing traffic at the Brooklyn yard, the sudden appearance of oil trains on nearby tracks, and the growing awareness of toxic pollution from Precision Castparts, residents of SE Portland seem to be back in a familiar struggle. Whether they can re-assert control over the neighborhood’s livability, and over the new hazards posed by oil trains, remains to be seen.