By Midge Pierce

Portland is awash in a toxic stew that is impacting the elderly, vulnerable and particularly children with particulate exposure that causes everything from dementia to lower IQ and attention deficits.

A major cause is diesel fuel, found in heavy concentrations in SE Portland’s Brooklyn Railyards, along highways and within local streets.

At a packed forum near the Railyards last month, the newly-formed Portland Neighbors Addressing Diesel Pollution addressed what makes diesel 100 times more toxic than gas engine exhaust. Speakers drew from medical journals and their own experiences to explain how adept diesel’s ultra-fine exhaust particulates are at invading our bloodstream and clinging to our lungs, heart and brain causing asthma, liver disease and cancers.

Calling Portlanders part of a “huge experiment” of pollution exposure, Patrick O’Hearan, Board President of the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, cited challenges of deregulation, monitoring, underfunding and the “war on science” as contributors to the issue. “We have the technology; we have the resources” to fix this, he concluded.

A whopping 40-60,000 heavy-duty diesel vehicles move through Portland daily, some 14-16,000 on I-5 alone, according to Mark Riskedahl, NW Environmental Defense Director. “That’s a lot of diesel.”

Lung and ICU doctor Erica Moseson spoke of how particulates can go directly to the bloodstream and stay there. She explained the correlation between clean air, education and economics by citing the clean-up of Washington state’s diesel school buses. Kids missed fewer school days, parents missed less work and employers didn’t have to pay for those sick days. With fixes like these, economies can grow stronger, she said.

What makes Oregon particularly susceptible to pollution is the state’s lack of controls on diesel-fueled trucks. Many are more than 30 years old and the result is pollution worse than other West Coast cities.

Many aging vehicles have migrated from California, which has stricter diesel regulations. Despite refrains like Oregon is where old engines come to die, engines don’t always die. “Old trucks last forever,” warned an expert.

Yes, older engines can be retrofitted, but for mom and pop operators, the cost of new engines can be prohibitive. Moreover, older diesel engine replacements are allowed on newer vehicles in Oregon, according to Riskedahl and so the cycle continues.

At the Railyards, an increasing concentration of some 1000 trucks daily enter and leave the SE Holgate entrance. Beyond railyard trucks, small trucks on local routes ply commercial and residential streets carrying everything from building materials for construction sites and apples for farmer’s markets.

Solutions include regulations and possible subsidies to help small operators phase out older trucks. The Clean Diesel coalition calls on neighbors citywide to advocate for legislation that requires environmentally suitable replacement of older trucks or air filters that “cost less than the hospital bills and lost work caused by exposure to diesel emissions…”

For more information, see: brooklyn-neighborhood.org/stopping-diesel-pollution