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New Study offers picture of polluted Portland

Consider it a snapshot — the kind of snapshot people tape to refrigerators to remind themselves to stop snacking. Lewis and Clark’s Bruce Probodnik, PhD, lead investigator of the Portland Pollution Research Group, believes the snapshot he has taken of Portland calls for the city to consider lifestyle changes. There’s nothing illegal going on here, but the impacts of “legal” emissions patterns and problematic chemicals may be creating future problems, particularly for the city’s less affluent residents.

“Many of the chemicals that are being released are chemicals that in the past were thought to be pretty safe but that more recently are thought to be problematic,” states Probodnik. “Tetrachloroethylene” (TCE), for example, was considered safe and commonly used by companies like Viewmaster. Now it is know to be a serious carcinogen. Some companies are emitting TCE through their smokestacks which means workers are being exposed at some certain level.”

“Pollution in Portland: Toxic Emissions in the Metropolitan Area” (April 18, 2003) draws on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, a database that has been tracking toxics releases since 1987. Toxic emission information, under the provisions of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), is reported by industry to state regulatory agencies, which in turn forward their reports to the EPA. The TRI is far from a complete inventory. Companies are only required to report TRI data if they employ more than 10 workers and they use 10,000 pounds or more of at least one TRI chemical in a year. While there are thousands of chemicals released into the environment, the TRI only tracks 650 chemicals. In Portland, 239 companies have been required to report at some time for use of 126 chemicals.

The TRI also breaks into two broad categories: “transferred emissions” and “onsite emissions.” The former represents chemicals that have been shipped offsite to a landfill or hazardous waste facility. The latter represents chemicals that are released on company property. The number of transferred emissions has grown sharply in recent years, reducing the risk of onsite emissions. The growth in this area, however, means more hazardous chemicals are being moved on city streets and urban railroad lines.

One of the problems with the TRI, Probodnik points out, is that the data is not organized to allow comparisons between companies or to easily draw larger emission trends.

“The primary purpose of the annual report is to take already existing official data and provide it to the public in a format that can be more easily digested,” Probodnik states. “As currently presented, Probodnik states. “As currently presented, it [TRI] is a datasystem where you can go in and find data on one particular company, but you can’t go in and see how it relates to other companies in the city. That’s what we’ve tried to do here. Once people have more of a comparative analysis, it can hopefully allow residents and workers stay aware as to which companies are behaving responsibly and which are not.”

Portland’s top polluters (see side bar) are largely the companies you’d expect to be handling lots of toxic materials. Wacker Siltronic heads the list with 1,340,459 pounds of toxics emitted by the plant in 2000 (the most recent data available). The company uses nitric acid to etch the silicon wafers it produces. The acid is neutralized into nitric compounds that are then dumped into the Willamette River. Wacker Siltronic’s 2000 monitored 1.3 million pound release was composed of these fertilzer like compounds. State and federal regulators consider such releases as posing little risk to the river or those living in the area.

Dynea Overlays, Inc., second place on the list with 281,885 pounds of toxic emissions, is a different story. The company released 239,000 poiunds of methanol was released through the company smokestacks. Methanol is suspected of having an impact on human development, as well as neurological, gastrointenstinal, respiratory and skin organ reactions. Dynea also releases 14,000 pounds of phenol, suspected of toxic effects on cardiovascular, blood, gastrointestinal, liver, kidney, neurological and other human organs and systems. While under the legal limits according to local and state regulators, these same regulators do not know what the long-term impacts may be for North Portland residents who fallwithin range of Dynea’s toxic emissions year after year.

It is in the patterns created by toxic emissions that there should be cause for concern. Pollution in Portland shows that those patterns create a dense zone along the Willamette River where toxic emissions are the worst. Some of this area corresponds with the Portland Harbor Superfund site, however, it also extends into north and northeast Portland neighborhoods as well. While the report claims no causal relationship between the emissions and health conditions in those parts of town, other studies have shown asthma rates to run higher in these areas and that there’s higher exposure to lead and other materials as well. These problems are in part linked to transportation and housing problems, however, adding another layer of toxic chemicals, even within legal limits, can not be considered a step towards resolving the problem.

Another important factor in defining these zones of emission is environmental justice. As Podobnik writes in the report:

“The concept of environmental injustice refers to a situation where people of color, or people of low incomes, are exposed to a higher level of pollution than their white or more affluent counterparts. If we compare the geographic distribution of toxic emissions in Portland, with the place of residence of communities of color and low income citizens, it becomes clear that there is a problem of environmental injustice in the metropolitan area.”

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration announced its intention to restrict information found in the TRI because the database could be used as a guide to large deposits of chemicals terrorists could use to their own ends. Probodnik, who was concerned that his own report not be viewed as some sort of guide to terrorist groups, sees more public information as creating more security against terrorism.

Prodobnik and his group hope that having an annual report will arm communities with the information they need to begin pressuring companies to cut back on all toxic emissions. They also hope that regulators will become more aggressive in the way they look at potential harm to workers and the community. Prodobnik also believes the report can be a spur to industry to find ways to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in their production processes, too.

While information alone will produce only limited results, the information Prodobnik and others are mining provides important opportunties for community activists and organized labor. Collaboration between the two can produce a powerful tool to force companies to change their ways. It is not an easy task, but Prodobnik’s new study provides solid common ground for building that collaboration.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.


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Last Updated: May 1, 2003