Carter Webb, manager of safety and environment for ESCO Inc., the corporation that owns two steel foundries at the northern edge of the Northwest neighborhood, acknowledges that his company’s air emissions have created some enemies as well as some alleged misery among its neighbors.
“We’re the focus of concern and frustration for some of our neighbors,” he said at a legislative workgroup hearing in August at Port of Portland offices in old town. ”We will not ignore that.’
But one also cannot ignore the fact that Carter perceives the criticism as unfair. “We look at the monitoring data and we are very confident that ESCO is not causing risk to anyone in the neighborhood. In fact, EPA categorizes ESCO as a ‘minor’ source of hazardous pollutants.”
Most Portlanders lament the fact that on days when the sky is cloud free, the customary view of Mount Hood and the other Cascade peaks is becoming increasingly hazy. We chalk this up to automobile induced smog, which is certainly a major contributor, but are mostly unaware of the large number of other extremely toxic contaminants that mix with the more obvious automobile exhaust. An EPA database has identified Portland as a hot spot for the toxics in its air.
In cities across the country, the EPA has identified more than 600 compounds in air pollution that threaten public health, including many that are heavy metals, such as lead.
What, exactly, IS in the air?
For years, ESCO’s neighbors have displayed lawn signs asking, “What’s in the air?” For an answer, they could turn to a confusing array of state, federal and private reports that when combined list 67 different toxins that are or have been released to the air by ESCO, including 7 toxic heavy metals on an EPA’s list of the 8 most dangerous metals released to the urban environment. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality lists 46 different toxic substances in ESCO’s pollution. The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory lists 15 different toxic substances coming out of two ESCO plants, including seven toxics that are not on the DEQ’s list. Fourteen other toxic metals not listed by either the state or federal agency have been detected in ESCO’s air emissions by a private testing company, Cooper Environmental Services, based in Portland. Coopers did its work in 2008 under contract to the EPA.
The total volume of toxic substances disclosed to the EPA equals only about 40 percent of the total volume of toxic emissions that the company disclosed to the DEQ. Cooper appears to have not calculated the volumes of the toxic substances it detected. As a result of these discrepancies, the public cannot possibly know the total volume of all 67 toxic substances in ESCO’s air pollution, or what else might be in their air.
The DEQ compiled ESCO’s toxic releases in the company’s air pollution permit, which technically expired on Aug.1, 2009, but has been extended and is now up for renewal. The DEQ plans to hold hearings on a new permit within the next several months. Interestingly, the EPA and Coopers reveal the names of 21 toxic substances in ESCO’s air pollution that were not disclosed by the DEQ in the expiring permit.
Webb told the legislative work session that ESCO is only a “minor” source of this toxic pollution, but that statement may be confusing. A “minor” source of toxic pollution is defined by the Clean Air Act as a source that emits less than 25 tons of all toxic pollutants. ESCO has told the DEQ that its toxic releases fall just short of that threshold, but further analysis reveals ESCO may surpass 26.5 tons if you take into account the more current EPA data for comparable substances on DEQ’s list. If you go with the lowball amounts that ESCO reported to the DEQ, you might agree with Webb that ESCO meets the definition of a “minor” source. But if you go with the EPA’s much higher figures, you could reasonably say that ESCO’s toxic emissions amount to more than 26.5 tons per year—enough to bounce the company into the category of a “major” toxic polluter, regardless of what Webb has said.
The DEQ compiled its list in 2004, while the EPA gathered its data from 2005-2008. Some differences are large. For example, ESCO told the DEQ its annual emissions of glycol ethers, a neurotoxin that is a component of paint, amount to just 4,518 pounds. But four times ESCO reported much larger figures to the EPA for its glycol ethers emissions: 10,332 pounds in 2005, 18,119 pounds in 2006, 19,255 pounds in 2007 and 12,627 lcs. in 2008. ESCO has a financial incentive to tell the truth to the EPA. The EPA imposes penalties on a company that gives false information about its emissions.
Then there is the issue of enforcement. According to ESCO’s air pollution permit, issued by the DEQ, the company must limit all forms of hazardous air pollution to a total of no more than 24 tons per year. “This,” the permit says, “sets an enforceable limit.” It is not clear whether the DEQ would ever penalize a company for violating its air permit.
George Davis, who reviews the ESCO permit for DEQ, said he was unaware of discrepancies between the EPA and DEQ data until he was informed by this reporter. But he does now acknowledge that discrepancies do seem to exist, and are, at the very least, confusing. He said the DEQ has its own inventory of toxic emissions and that the state does not consult the EPA database for information about toxic emissions when enforcing permits.
The EPA database is known as the “Toxic Releases Inventory” (TRI), an online information resource established by Congress in 1986 when it approved the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act. This law was passed in response to a deadly explosion at a Union Carbide plant that killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India in 1984.
It is based on the premise that people have a right to know what kinds of toxic chemicals are being dumped by polluters into their communities — into air, water and landfills, and how much. But industry lobbyists have succeeded in getting numerous limitations or exemptions enacted into regulations, particularly during the Bush administration. Some of these rules are beginning to be reversed under Obama.
Emissions of some of ESCO’s emissions are quite large, and include the several carcinogens, including benzene (5,990 pounds per year, according to the DEQ) and formaldehyde (5,745 pounds), and neurotoxins like toluene (3,853 pounds), and phenol (8,769 lbs.). EPA rules require a polluter to report emissions to TRI of releases of any single toxic compound that exceed 10,000 lbs. ESCO reported no emissions of benzene, formaldehyde or toluene to the EPA.
Other ESCO emissions are much smaller but extremely toxic, accumulate over time and in the human body, and do not break down in the environment.
For example, after 20 years of ESCO emissions at the rate reported to the DEQ, the neighborhood could potentially be exposed to 420 lbs. of the carcinogen arsenic, as well as 160 lbs. of mercury and 640 lbs. of antimony, both of which are neurotoxins.
As Coopers noted in a report this year, “Hazardous metals are unique in that they will not biodegrade. Once released into the environment, they will always be potentially available for reintroduction into the air, water and food chain.” Toxic metals can easily enter a child’s body when she unknowingly inserts them into her mouth along with a finger, toe or toy.
Another issue is access to the information. The EPA publishes its limited TRI database on the internet, while the DEQ chooses not to publish its more expansive toxic inventory online. It is now seeking to charge a fee to this reporter for access to some document.
So much for the community’s right-to-know.
ESCO’s manganese and lead emissions: how safe?
In addition, there is reason to doubt Webb’s claim that ESCO’s emissions pose no health risk. One doctor with significant expertise with the one toxic substance ESCO is known to emit, manganese, says manganese is capable of damaging a person’s health once it enters the body. That doctor Is Dr. Matthew Brodsky, a neurologist at Oregon Health Sciences University, who says he has “grave concern about the air quality in my neighborhood.”
Dr. Brodsky lives within 10 blocks of ESCO.
“As a clinical researcher with expertise in movement disorders, I have investigated the effects of manganese on the nervous system and am very familiar with the literature that exists on this topic,” Dr. Brodsky wrote in an email to a neighbor, Mary Peveto, who is active in the air pollution fight. “It is well-documented that aerosolized manganese fumes have irreversible toxic effects on brain tissue, and in particular to a part of the brain called the ‘Globus Pallidus.’
“Damage to this part of the brain causes Parkinsonism, with disabling muscle rigidity, tremors and slowed movements. People exposed to manganese fumes also develop a condition called Dystonia, where there are painful overcontractions of muscles. The most severe types of exposures have been well-documented in outbreaks of these neurologic disorders at metal foundries where there is not adequate ventilation. However, damage also occurs to the nervous system in less severe conditions where there is direct exposure to aerosolized manganese. I would be happy to share with you videos of patients who have suffered from exposure to aerosolized manganese, my own research on this topic, and the literature that exists in this field.”
ESCO has been spewing out manganese for a long time. Since 1988, the earliest year in the EPA’s toxic release inventory database, ESCO has released a total of 43,000 pounds of manganese compounds into the surrounding neighborhood, or more than 21 tons.
Dr. Brodsky notes that ESCO’s toxic pollution is interfering with his daily life.
“As it is to many others in my neighborhood, the almost-daily acrid odor that emanates from ESCO as I ride my bicycle to work is disturbing to me,” he writes. “One wants to hold their breath as they walk, ride or even drive through the neighborhood in the hopes that they will not be inhaling what is being put in the air, but of course this is not possible.
“It is astounding to me how this can be allowed to continue in such a densely populated neighborhood, and in such proximity to an elementary school full of children with rapidly developing little brains that are at the greatest risk of long-term neurologic damage.”
ESCO’s Webb noted in his remarks to the House workshop that the DEQ tested in 2005 for air toxics at a monitoring station at a post office at Northwest 24th Street and Savier, located just a few blocks from one of its two plants, and found no problems. It is not clear why the DEQ failed to detect substances found in the air by Coopers three years later.
“The monitoring shows that if ESCO disappeared tomorrow, it would have little effect on the air-quality problems in the neighborhood,” he said. “That monitoring shows that manganese levels are one-quarter of health-based benchmarks.”
The health-based benchmarks to which Webb refers are not universally held by medical experts as protective of public health. In addition to ESCO’s emissions of manganese, and the concerns raised by Dr. Brodsky, ESCO also emits some lead. Its lead emissions amounted to about 128 pounds in 2008, or 1,280 lbs. per decade, all spit out by the plants in the form of tiny particles. There are three schools within a few blocks of ESCO, and many units of housing containing vulnerable populations such as children.
Consider a hypothetical 8-year-old living at the Dover Apartments on Northwest 24rd Place, across the street from an ESCO plant. In the eight years since 2001 when ESCO started disclosing its lead emissions to the TRI, the company has emitted 613 pounds of lead, according to figures recently revised by the company. The company’s lead problem has been growing larger throughout the current decade. Its lead emissions were 32 times greater in 2008 than in 2001. If ESCO continues emitting lead at the 2008 rate, before reaching her 18th birthday, this young neighbor could be potentially exposed to nearly one ton of ESCO’s lead emissions. Some of it would have landed on her porch or window sill, or wafted into her bedroom.
One concerned doctor is Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, the principal investigator or co-investigator of numerous community-based trials and epidemiologic research on lead. He has been recognized by the EPA for his work on the effects of low levels of lead exposure on cognition and behavior.
There is “no safe level of lead,” he says.
Lanphear has said that “exceedingly low-levels of exposure to environmental lead” have been associated with an increased risk for reading problems, ADHD, school failure, delinquency and criminal behavior in children and adolescents. “Because there is no known safe level of lead exposure, exposure to lead below existing standards should not be considered ‘safe,’” he testified at an EPA hearing in 2007.
Hundreds lodge complaints with DEQ
From 2000 to 2003, the DEQ received 479 complaints about odors allegedly emanating from ESCO, including 284 in 2000, 45 in 2001, 45 in 2002 and 87 through the first seven months of 2003. The complaints continued through 2009, and include about 250 from the last three years.
A typical complainant asked the DEQ, “Why is nothing being done? I have been commenting on this for over seven years. I called KOIN this morning and asked them why they are not covering this …” The complainant noted she had smelled a “metallic” odor and had suffered from nausea, burning eyes and sleeplessness.
Like many other residents, this woman asked that her name not be used. Another resident said he had been forced by the odor to close his windows. “ESCO cranks up the noise and smell just about every night at 10:30 pm. I put earplugs in for the noise but the nasty smell permeates our neighborhood throughout the night. Early mornings are quite noticeable.”
“It starts out as more a burning smell and gets more metallic,” another woman said. “It’s the smell of hot metal. It’s worse at night after dark and worse this year than I can ever remember. I have lived at this address for more than25 years.”
One woman said she had detected a “very strong odor coming from ESCO at this time. It made me nauseous. Driving by ESCO, I had seen the plant in operation with the doors open. The smell most definitely was coming from the plant.”
She asked the DEQ to “please do something about this poisonous air situation!”
Several times, the DEQ has asked ESCO for an explanation of the odors. After hearing such complaints, records show that ESCO often suggests it may be someone else at fault. “There were no upset conditions at ESCO that might have contributed to the very strong odors you describe,” says one letter last September from ESCO environmental engineer Brian Krytenberg to the DEQ. ”It is frustrating to us that because we’re at the southern edge of a huge industrial area, any odor coming from the north even when it’s from other sources seems to be coming from out direction. Please understand that there are many other sources of odor in our area.”
Asked if the DEQ had followed up with her complaints about the possible health impacts of breathing the pollution, one woman said, “Oh heavens no. They don’t do that, as far as I know. Their line is ESCO is operating legally with a permit in a zone for heavy industry so that’s the end of it.”