Dirty Air Threatens the Eliot Neighborhood

Portlanders cherish easy access to outdoor activities, clean air, and locally roasted coffee. While our city’s air quality has generally improved over the last 30 years, Portland, and especially the Eliot neighborhood, currently has some of the worst air pollution in the nation.

Toxic chemicals in the air contribute to health issues including cancer, organ damage, and respiratory irritation. In the most recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Air Toxics Assessment, Portland ranked as the worst city in America for respiratory distress from air pollution. Portlanders live closely to relatively unregulated industrial areas, and thus are exposed to a large quantity of toxic chemicals. The Eliot neighborhood encompasses industrial zones, residential areas, and heavily trafficked streets and highways, such as MLK Jr Blvd and Interstate 5. According to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the I-5 running through Eliot has the highest daily truck counts in Oregon.

Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has proposed a $450 million expansion to I-5 through the Rose Quarter. This proposed highway expansion would require a lot of construction equipment over a proposed 4-year construction period. No More Freeways at nomorefreewayspdx.com has more information, including ways to address the proposed highway expansion. For Eliot residents, the proposed expansion would exacerbate diesel particulate exposure. Diesel particulate is an air toxin produced by unfiltered, old diesel engines that is linked to health problems such as lung cancer, heart attacks, preterm deliveries, low-weight births, and asthma. According to the EPA, the Eliot neighborhood currently ranks in the worst 2% of precincts in the nation for airborne diesel particulate.

Oregon has a dirty diesel problem largely because it has become a dumping ground for old diesel trucks that have been outlawed in neighboring states. California risk assessments report diesel particulate as the most dangerous airborne carcinogen. For this reason, California banned almost all unfiltered trucks statewide in 2008. In order to comply with the law, many California trucking companies began selling their obsolete trucks to Oregon buyers, where air quality regulations were not as strict. One strategy for combating the dirty diesel engines is to install a diesel particulate filter on a truck. The filter removes 90% of the particulate before it goes airborne. According to ODOT and DMV records, 3/4 of all trucks in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties are currently unfiltered.

Eliot Neighborhood Association now cooperates with twenty-eight other neighborhood organizations and Portland nonprofit groups to address this air pollution problem. Representatives from Eliot attend meetings with a group called the Willamette Industrial Area Neighbors who work to calculate industrial emissions from the records of nine government agencies. These records report neighborhood exposures to industrial solvents, heavy metals, and particulates that we compare to EPA health assessments.

Additionally, an Eliot resident has agreed to install a diesel monitor in their yard. This state-of-the-art device takes precise measurements of the micrograms of diesel particulate per cubic meter. Neighborhood leaders are working on this project because, by their own admission, DEQ does not include human health as a factor to regulate industry. Therefore, it falls on concerned citizens to gather the facts and negotiate with industry to make sure stack scrubbers, like Bullseye Glass recently installed, and diesel filters are used. The scrubber at Bullseye Glass now removes 97-99% of their emissions, including up to 80 pounds of lead per day that was formerly released in the air over neighbor’s houses.

Volunteers are needed in the fight for healthy air in the Eliot neighborhood! This is a complex public health issue that requires grassroots organization and the effort of many individuals. If you would like to take action, please consider the following options:

  1. Portland Clean Air seeks volunteers to compile and analyze industrial pollution records for the Eliot neighborhood. No previous experience is necessary. This involves typing, cutting and pasting in Excel, and data entry in Excel. Portland Clean Air also seeks volunteers to make phone calls to reporters to update a media list and spread their message about protecting public health. Contact Greg at Portland Clean Air, greg@portlandcleanair.org, to find out more about how you can plug in.
  2. Attend Willamette Industrial Area Neighbors meetings. Contact Nancy Hisser at nancyhiser@comcast.net for information about the next meeting.
  3. Volunteer for or donate to Neighbors for Clean Air. Find more information at their website whatsinourair.org.

By Anna Daggett and Monique Haskins