By Paul Koberstein
(First of two parts)
After battling two small eastside glass makers over toxic air emissions, Southeast Portland activists are turning their attention to a far-bigger target: Precision Castparts Corp., the worldwide metals manufacturer with two local plants and numerous past environmental violations.
A database released in December by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed a toxic hot spot in the vicinity of Precision Castparts’ side-by-side plants in the Errol Heights neighborhood — and a higher cancer risk for nearby residents. Precision Castparts recently turned down a request by the state Department of Environmental Quality to allow air emissions monitors on its premises.
Several dozen houses are located within a quarter-mile of Precision Castparts’ plants at Southeast 46th Avenue and Harney Street, and one sits within about 250 feet, says Jacob Sherman, a leader of the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association, which includes Errol Heights.
“The community is concerned about Precision Castparts because of its impact on human health, as well as the negative impacts the company may be having on the surrounding environment, such as in Johnson Creek,” said Sherman, a neighborhood activist who co-founded the South Portland Air Quality group.
Johnson Creek, an urban salmon-bearing stream that’s been the beneficiary of major cleanup efforts, flows about 400 feet south of the plant. The DEQ has found that Precision Castparts has discharged several toxic compounds into the creek at levels that exceed health benchmarks, as well as into groundwater beneath the site.
In 2013, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services detected elevated levels of numerous toxic pollutants in a storm drain near Precision Castparts’ plants, a violation of the city code, according to Matt Criblez, the bureau’s chief enforcement officer. The bureau fined the company $1,050 for making a prohibited discharge to the storm drain, Criblez said.
Relying on self-reporting
So far, there has not been any independent monitoring data to show exactly what is being emitted into the air by Precision Castparts Corp., (PCC).
“(Neither) DEQ nor EPA has conducted any air emissions-specific monitoring near PCC,” said Nina DeConcini, the DEQ’s Northwest Region administrator.
The EPA’s computer model, known as the National Air Toxics Assessment, identifies Errol Heights as one of the most toxic hot spots in the Portland airshed based on emissions data that the company itself reported to the agency.
The EPA assessment shows Precision Castparts plants emit four highly potent toxic compounds. Though small in quantity, the emissions are dangerous enough to cause potentially major health effects for the surrounding population, according to the report.
While the two Portland glass makers responded quickly — and publicly — to concerns about their cadmium and arsenic emissions raised by neighbors and the media, Precision Castparts has hunkered down.
The company, the second-largest Oregon-based corporation after Nike, declined interview requests. Instead, spokesman Jay Khetani released a one-paragraph statement:
“PCC Structurals is committed to the safety of our employees and neighbors and in minimizing our impact on the environment. We do not use arsenic or cadmium as part of our processes. Our emissions — air and water — are in full compliance with permits issued and audited by the Oregon DEQ. We began discussions with DEQ late last year about additional air emission control systems and are in the process of installing those upgrades. That work is scheduled to be complete by the end of June, but we hope our contractors can finish the work sooner.”
Multiple toxics released
The EPA suspects the most dangerous pollutant leaving the plant is hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal emitted to both air and water, usually in the form of small particles or aerosols. Hexavalent chromium is known for its robust ability to cause cancer in the digestive tract and lungs. It’s also known to cause gastric pain, nausea, vomiting, severe diarrhea, breathing difficulties, allergic skin reactions and genetic defects. In water, it is deemed harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects.
If the company’s self-reporting is accurate, its hexavalent chromium emissions are the sixth-highest among all industrial polluters in Multnomah County. ESCO, a steel foundry in Northwest Portland, ranks the highest.
The EPA considers hexavalent chromium to be the ninth most toxic compound of the 609 toxic chemicals it regulates, behind such things as dioxin and asbestos.
People who live in the vicinity of manufacturing plants where chromium is used, like Precision Castparts, have a greater probability of getting exposed to hexavalent chromium than the general population, according to the EPA.
Precision Castparts plants also emit nickel, a Group 2A carcinogen, to both the air and water, the EPA reports. Precision Castparts emits the highest amount of nickel in the county, twice what ESCO, the second-highest, emits.
In addition, the city of Portland has detected several toxic compounds in Johnson Creek near the plants, including PCBs, chromium, nickel, zinc, arsenic, copper, lead, sodium hydroxides, hydrofluoric and nitric acids, and seven polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Other than nickel and chromium, there is no available evidence, such as company reports or monitoring data, that say any of these also are in the plant’s air emissions.
Volkswagen’s recent attempt to deceive the EPA about diesel emissions makes neighbors more skeptical of Precision Castparts’ self-reporting of pollution, Sherman said. He also noted that the company has been cited repeatedly since the 1980s for violating hazardous waste-handling regulations designed to protect workers and the public. EPA records show it was assessed fines totaling $45,300. The plant also was rocked by explosions in 2011 and 2013.
“When we have a track record that suggests there haven’t been the best practices in place, how can we trust the self-reporting?” Sherman asks. “I don’t think we can without having a rigorous third-party validation of those facts.”
Air monitoring planned
Nearby residents won’t have to rely solely on the company about what’s in their air for much longer.
Soon, the DEQ plans to install air pollution monitors near the plant that it hopes will provide an independent accounting of the company’s air effluents. The DEQ has delayed renewal of Precision Castparts’ air pollution permit, which expired in 2012, until it can determine whether it needs to reduce its allowable levels of air pollution to levels that protect public health.
“The DEQ is delaying the renewal of the permits until such time as the agency adopts a health-based permitting program (through rule making) that will address localized emissions of air toxics from industrial sources,” DeConcini said.
At a private March 18 meeting at the plant, the company told DEQ officials that it would not allow any of the monitoring equipment to be installed at the plant site. The company declined to allow community members to attend that meeting.
Precision Castparts cited two reasons why the DEQ couldn’t install air-quality monitors on its site, DeConcini said. “Because the company has Department of Defense contracts, the facility is secured and therefore access is restricted. Additionally, PCC stated that if the monitor was on their property, there might be the public perception that there could be tampering with the equipment.”
The DEQ is developing an air sampling plan that will be “shared with the public and PCC when complete,” DeConcini said in an email sent a few days later to neighbors of the plant. “There will be four air toxics monitors and two meteorological station monitors for approximately one month, with the potential to go longer. DEQ is in the process of setting up access agreements for different adjacent properties and will be obtaining additional equipment to deploy at these sites.”
Contradictory reports to EPA
Three different EPA databases report differing amounts of Precision Castparts air emissions, all based on the company’s self-reporting.
The National Air Toxics Assessment says the company released 9.6 ounces of hexavalent chromium into the air in 2011, the latest year for which it presents data. Another EPA database, the National Emissions Inventory, says the hexavalent chromium release amounted to 75 pounds in 2011, or about 125 times higher. A third database, the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, says the plant released 1,310 to 1,910 pounds of chromium from 2004 through 2009, but only 20 pounds per year after that. Those figures included chromium in its trivalent and hexavalent forms.
In 2013, the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts listed the company as the “nation’s number one toxic polluter,” based on the Toxic Release Inventory data.
After the news media reported that finding, the company revised its annual Toxic Release Inventory reports back as far as 2010. It claimed to have found in its own testing that it was releasing smaller amounts of hexavalent chromium than it previously thought, according to research institute director Michael Ash. The company also said the cobalt and nickel in its emissions “were in forms less toxic than those assumed by EPA,” Ash said.
As a result, the institute now ranks the company as the nation’s 20th-largest air polluter. The public will have to wait until the DEQ publishes its monitoring data for a third-party confirmation of those emission figures.
The National Air Toxics Assessment also estimates how emissions might actually affect public health. It shows that as you travel away from the Precision Castparts site, the air gradually becomes less carcinogenic within a mile or two of the two plants.
The computer model takes into account such factors as the cancer-causing potency of the pollution and how its movement is dictated by Portland’s hilly geography and wind conditions.
The database shows that in Portland Census Tract 88, where Errol Heights is located, the air is capable of causing an extra 63 cancers per 1 million people, as measured over a lifetime of 70 years.
In some surrounding neighborhoods, the EPA estimates the cancer rate associated with air toxics is about 8 percent to 26 percent lower.
The air in the most toxic hot spot in the city, located in the heart of downtown, is capable of causing an extra 86 cancers per million people.
All of Portland’s other most-toxic hot spots — downtown, the Pearl District, inner Southeast and near the Rose Garden — are close to two or three freeways as well as heavy railroad traffic, which both contribute to high diesel fumes known to cause cancer.
Errol Heights is not close to either.
Precision Castparts’ pollution has been an issue in the neighborhood for decades, but was never addressed before, said Meg Van Buren, an activist with South Portland Air Quality who lives in Brentwood-Darlington.
“But now we are feeling there’s a groundswell, and we may get somewhere.”
Precision Castparts, based in Southwest Portland, employs 30,000 people at 162 locations in North and South America, Europe and Asia, including about 550 at the Errol Heights plants near Johnson Creek Boulevard, straddling the Portland/Milwaukie boundary.
Those plants formally are known as the PCC Structurals Inc. Large Parts Campus. The company has done business there since 1957, when it built on the site of a former celery farm.
Precision Castparts was acquired in January 2016 by Berkshire Hathaway, led by chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, for $32.4 billion. Its parts, made from titanium, nickel, cobalt and steel alloys, are found in General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce jet engines, as well as in nuclear power plants, satellite launch vehicles and medical devices. On its website, the company proclaims that “every aircraft in the sky flies with parts made by PCC.”
By its nature, Precision Castparts deals with many environmentally sensitive materials, some of which escape to the outside air.
In addition to emitting carcinogens, like hexavalent chromium and nickel, its local plants report emitting cobalt, a heavy metal, and hydrogen fluoride gas, also known as hydrofluoric acid.
When inhaled, cobalt can cause a wide range of respiratory effects, including wheezing, asthma, pneumonia and fibrosis. Cardiac effects, congestion of the liver, kidneys and conjunctiva, and immunological effects also been have noted in people chronically exposed to cobalt, the EPA says.
Hydrogen fluoride is toxic when inhaled and can cause severe damage when it comes in contact with the skin or eyes. Long-term chronic effects are unknown.
In May 2011, an explosion at the Errol Heights plants involved hydrofluoric acid and injured six workers. Residents recall seeing a “giant orange fireball” over the neighborhood that night. Because of a glitch in procedures, not everyone who lives nearby was informed about the accident, but those who were warned were advised to stay indoors.
The plant’s air emissions also include the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane, as well as nitrous oxide, aluminum, copper and nitric acid, according to the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory.
Erin Brockovich coming to town
Hexavalent chromium was made famous by California activist Erin Brockovich, who won a $333 million settlement from the California power company PG&E for dumping it into groundwater used for drinking. Brockovich, whose story was told in a major motion picture, is scheduled to speak at a Community Air Forum that takes place from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 2, at Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St. in Portland. The free forum is hosted by the Eastside Portland Air Coalition.