By Stephyn Quirke

Since the news of toxic metal pollution first broke in February, a wave of community protest has pressed for change in both polluting industries and the government bodies who regulate them.

Residents traveled to Salem February 23 for an information session hosted by Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson of the House Energy and Environment Committee. At the hearing, DEQ director Dick Pederson announced that his agency would create a pollution permitting system designed to protect public health and reduce environmental risk. Pederson requested an additional $1.5 million in the DEQ’s annual budget to support additional air monitoring, and the creation of the new health-based permit program. Shortly after the meeting, Governor Brown announced her support for an additional $2.5 million in the DEQ’s budget – a request which was quickly passed.

On March 1, Milwaukie’s City Council heard public testimony from dozens of residents living near hazardous air pollution from McClure Industries and Precision Castparts in SE Portland. During testimony, DEQ’s Nina DeConcini testified that Precision Castparts had just agreed to install pollution control technology. Earlier that day it had been announced that DEQ’s director, Dick Pederson, and its Air Quality Manager, Dave Monro, had both resigned.

Protesters arrived at the DEQ’s downtown headquarters on SW 6th Ave. On March 3, carrying garden vegetables they had grown within a half-mile of Bullseye Glass – food they had just been warned not to eat by the Oregon Health Authority. Yelling chants in the lobby before taking the elevators upstairs, they delivered a dozen boxes of this home-grown produce to the DEQ’s interim director, Jodi Hammond.

The boxes were accompanied by a menu of vegetable dishes with names like “hexavalent hash browns w/ shredded chromium carrots”, “grilled arsenic asparagus” and “cadmium-laced cauliflower florets”.

That same day, attorneys representing seven residents of SE neighborhoods filed a class-action lawsuit against Bullseye, charging them with negligence and recklessness for burning heavy metals without pollution controls.

Bullseye submitted a notice the next day that it planned to install a baghouse to capture particulate matter from one of their furnaces. The company told the DEQ that it intended to finish construction on April 5, and has since said this single baghouse is meant as a trial to test the feasibility of installing the same filters on their other furnaces.

The DEQ announced March 17, that air monitoring during March had revealed significantly lower airborne concentrations of cadmium in SE and N. Portland giving them confidence that the two glass factories were, in fact, the source of the detected emissions.

Officials with the DEQ met with Precision Castparts to negotiate placement of air monitors on and around company property. Community members had earlier requested a seat at this meeting to represent the community affected by the company’s emissions – a request the company denied. “We’re disappointed, quite candidly,” said Nina DeConcini of Oregon DEQ.

In a protest outside the building while the meeting took place, local mother Olivia Russell commented “The people being regulated are telling the DEQ what the rules are supposed to be instead of the other way around… I find that very strange.”

At a community meeting at Lane Middle School, Oregon Health Authority director Lynn Saxton told the audience that Portland’s heavy metal pollution constituted a public health emergency. When asked what action was being taken, the only answer was more air monitoring.

SE Portland resident Sarah Clark read a letter to Saxton and other agency officials earlier that evening as part of the South Portland Air Quality group (SPAQ), stating, “On behalf of the more than 10,000 people that live in the haze of arsenic and nickel hotspots, we demand action now. We have been at this David versus Goliath battle with industrial polluters for years, and we need our government to be on our side.”

In 2013, Precision Castparts was ranked the #1 toxic air polluter in the country by the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts. At the time, their PR rep. Jack Coleman called the study that evaluated them “deeply flawed”. The company later issued corrections to their own self-reported emissions data, lowering their numbers for various pollutants, and claiming others were released in their least toxic forms. With no other data to work with, and with absolutely no changes at the facility itself, researchers applied the new data and bumped them down to the 20th worst polluter in the country.

According to Sarah Clark of SPAQ, “After neighborhood outcry, Precision Castparts met once with concerned residents in April 2014, and we quickly learned that the company did not believe it had any responsibility to its employees or the community to make any changes.

After the meeting, residents asked Precision to discuss pollution reductions, but emails were not returned and the company instead focused its efforts on debating the methodology of the PERI ranking.”

What Coleman and other PR officials didn’t know was that plants growing nearby were actually capturing such waste, and were preparing to tell a very different story. High levels of arsenic and nickel around Precision Castparts have fueled neighborhood activism, and are putting community groups together in ways that haven’t been seen before.

According to ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, mosses are functionally “canaries in the mine”, as air passes over their wet membrane, which is just one cell thick. This is analogous to the alveoli in our lungs – the place, writes Kimmerer, where our bodies “become continuous with the atmosphere” through another wet, one-cell-thick membrane, before it can be taken up by the blood.

March 15 at Lane Middle school, several residents complained of “noxious” and “pungent” smells, which one person compared to the smell of “tires burning with plastic”.

One board member of the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association told the agencies he knew three people who were either planning to sell their houses or had already began.

Other residents talked about how their own family’s medical problems were forcing them to move. One man, Sam Hendricks, flatly observed that it was the companies – Precision Castparts and McClure Industries – who have “no place in our communities.” Moves like this would not be entirely unprecedented.

Precision Castparts was purchased by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway on January 29 this year.

At the beginning of February, OPB announced an agreement to remove four massive dams owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiary PacifiCorps. Removal of these dams is designed to assist fish passage, and was the outcome of a long fight to restore salmon and other native fish to the area.

No state agency is currently entertaining the idea of closing down a metal-emitting facility or asking it to move. However, DEQ has already asked two glass manufacturers to suspend use of cadmium and arsenic for the time being. Now the Environmental Quality Commission (EQC serves as the board of directors for the Department of Environmental Quality) is considering a temporary rule that requires glass manufacturers that use arsenic, cadmium, chromium or nickel to install at least one emission control device, such as a baghouse, to capture fine particulate matter.

The rule would require that those devices remove 99% of the particulate pollution. The EQC collected public comments on this rule until March 30, and has scheduled a new meeting for the draft rule on April 20.

There are two additional opportunities to address air quality this month. Saturday, April 2, Erin Brockovich will deliver a keynote speech at Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St. from 3 pm to 7 pm. Brockovich will be joined by a panel of local advocacy groups and lawyers addressing local air quality.

Wednesday, April 6, State Representatives Rob Nosse, Kathleen Taylor and Jeff Reardon will host a “Day of Action for Clean Air” at the SEIU Local 49 office at 3536 SE 26th Ave. from 6 – 8 pm.