You don’t have to wait for new regulations to get cleaner air in your neighborhood.
That’s what residents in Northwest Portland proved earlier this year when they signed a Good Neighbor Agreement with the nearby ESCO metal foundry. Their story of negotiating their own clean air deal is next in the series about environmental innovation.
The company, which manufactures steel parts for mining, logging and construction equipment, was in compliance with its state air quality permits. And for years that’s what company leaders had told neighbors complaining about the smell of its operations.
But when the poor air quality around neighborhood schools made national headlines in 2009, the complaint department at the ESCO reached its limit. USA Today reported Chapman Elementary School was among the worst 2 percent in the nation for local air quality – and that ESCO was partly to blame.
When the company’s air quality permit came up for renewal, neighbors stepped up their campaign to reduce the air pollution coming from the plant. Over the course of two years, they hashed out an agreement that commits ESCO to spending $5 million and reducing air pollution by 20 percent – beyond what’s required by law.
“When we looked at the data, we thought we were doing a good job. We were in compliance,” said Ian Bingham, ESCO’s general manager. “But it was clear this response wasn’t acceptable to our neighbors. … We started listening. For three hours at a time, we listened. And, boy, did we get an earful. People wanted emissions reductions, and they wanted them now.”
Mary Peveto, who lives near Chapman School and the ESCO facility, was a ringleader for her neighborhood. She was surprised to find out that the air quality around her home was apparently legal.
The neighborhood was developed alongside an industrial zone, in keeping with the city’s plan for high density and smart growth.
“I figured we must have worse air than other parts of Portland because of where we lived, but I never imagined it would be that bad,” she said. “I thought, ‘Didn’t somebody figure out that this is OK? Surely someone did.’ But the more you look, the more you realize nobody has. What I found is that none of this is illegal. We can’t trust our regulators that compliance means you’re not doing any harm.”
Peveto and her neighbors found an alternative to changing air pollution regulations, which likely would have required legislation.
They got ESCO to agree to do an independent audit to find ways to reduce its air pollution voluntarily. Engineers found more than a dozen ways to control or reduce ESCO’s air emissions, and the company chose a handful of feasible options to implement.
In the end, Esco agreed to maintain a round-the-clock complaint line, respond to every complaint about odors and emissions, add new pollution controls to its plants, fund air quality monitoring at Chapman Elementary School, and study additional emissions controls.
“ESCO … finally understood that there had been a tipping point and a critical mass was starting to believe they were harming people.” — Mary Peveto, Neighbors For Clean AirIn return, the neighbors agreed not to challenge the company’s air quality permit in court and to let the new permit stand for five years without changes – unless the changes are agreed to by all the parties involved.
Peveto said the Good Neighbor Agreement model can be replicated, and she helped found a group called Neighbors For Clean Air to help other neighborhoods tackle air pollution problems. But she also said conditions were particularly favorable for her neighborhood, with ESCO’s air pollution permit coming up for renewal, an active citizen campaign and testing data from the USA Today report.
“Not every community has the resources to say we’re going to have our own meeting,” she said. “I feel like it was a perfect storm. ESCO is a Portland company made up of Portland people, and I think they cared deeply about their legacy and finally understood that there had been a tipping point and a critical mass was starting to believe they were harming people.”