After smoke clears, what you need to know
Thanks to a huge team of fast-thinking first responders the smoke has cleared after a disastrous scrap yard fire in Northeast Portland. Does “all clear” mean that everything is ok? Not exactly.
The immediate danger of the black smoke has passed. But at least three families displaced by the fire must rebuild their lives. Others in the neighborhood are cleaning up soot, ash and residue that may contain toxic materials. There is much more to be done before this neighborhood is truly healthy and safe.
Cars in scrap yards contain a unique and toxic blend of materials, including heavy metals like lead and mercury as well as persistent toxics like PCBs and asbestos. Tires, when they burn, release cancer-causing gases and other toxics. Inhaling black smoke can harm health immediately and can raise the risk of future health problems. Smoke that contains a wide range of toxics also creates ash and residue that contain toxics. Tires also create as much as two gallons of oil each—hazardous material that can penetrate into soil and travel into the groundwater. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality has issued a “removal action order” requiring the site owner to quickly clean up debris to protect groundwater, as well as a list of violations of environmental regulations.
The same order also notes that officials do not yet know how widespread or how toxic is the soot that fell in the Cully neighborhood. The action order requires soil tests on the site and on adjacent residential properties, but the Oregon Health Authority concludes that “it is unlikely that a significant amount of the particulate matter will impact soil and gardens in the area.”
For those in the immediate vicinity of the recent fire, Multnomah County offers tips for clean-up than include ways to protect health.
In addition state, county and regional authorities are also posting updates as more information emerges.
What about next time?
A tragic disaster like this one turns attention to important questions: Why did this disaster happen where it did? Where else could this happen? How do we prevent harm like this in the future?
Auto scrap and salvage yards pose uniquely toxic hazards to communities. They are required to have permits for air and water and hazardous waste. Places that store more than 1,500 tires require a special permit; NW Metals was in violation of the law because they did not have such a permit. But those with a “dismantler” permit from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) do not need a solid waste disposal site permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that would ensure a greater set of protections for the community and the environment.
Portland has about 50 certified dismantlers, and most of them are in North and Northeast Portland and in Lents—neighborhoods that are also home to more people of color and low-wealth people than other neighborhoods.
Even without the smoke and fire, even without the violations of existing laws, neighborhoods like Cully and Lents bear more than their share of environmental hazards from traffic, industry, older housing stock that poses lead hazards and more. A tool called “EJ Screen” (Environmental Justice Screen), maintained by the EPA, makes it possible to see where there are low-wealth and people of color neighborhoods— and where some of the greatest environmental hazards are. Too often, these environmental and socioeconomic factors intersect.
The Cully neighborhood has grown up around industry. When it was annexed into Portland in 1985, existing industries and businesses were given an exemption to new zoning codes. Investments in parks, sidewalks and healthy neighborhood features has come more slowly than in other areas, and threats from industry, road traffic and older housing stock continue to put people at risk.
Health and environmental officials have a responsibility to both address the day-to-day environmental hazards like diesel exhaust and other traffic related pollution as well as manage waste and pollution in ways that prevent disasters like the scrapyard fire. And they must take a closer look at neighborhoods where all of these hazards compound to create a higher burden. When people of color and low-wealth families are bearing a greater burden, we need to look closer at the ways our systems of environmental protections are failing and find ways to correct these injustices.
Advocates in Cully including Verde and Living Cully are doing tremendous work to bring resources to this community and to raise the voices of neighbors in critical decisions that affect their well-being. But decisions over decades have created hazards in these neighborhoods that the city and state have a responsibility to address—including the hazards posed by auto scrap yards.