When the poor air quality around Northwest Portland schools made national headlines in 2009, the complaint department at the ESCO reached its limit.
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 relayed to neighbors complaining about the smell of its operations.
But the complaints reached a fever pitch when the USA Today reported schools in the area were among the worst 2 percent in the nation for local air quality.
“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.”
What happened next was pretty groundbreaking.
“Boy did we get an earful”
The company agreed to work with its neighbors to improve the local air quality.
Company leaders spent two years working out a Good Neighbor Agreement that commits ESCO to spending $5 million and reducing air pollution from its two plants by 20 percent – beyond what is required by law.
The agreement was signed last week and celebrated at a community gathering at Portland’s Chapman Elementary School on Tuesday.
It started with ESCO changing its approach to neighborhood relations.
“We started listening,” Bingham told the crowd gathered at Chapman Tuesday. “For three hours at a time, we listened. And, boy, did we get an earful. People wanted emissions reductions, and they wanted them now.”
Neighbors learn the ropes
The company offered tours of its operations and explained at length how air emissions are measured, calculated and regulated. And community members stuck it out and learned the ropes. Then they sat down at the negotiating table with the company and hashed out an agreement.
“For me it felt like sprinting a marathon,” said Mary Peveto, of the Neighbors for Clean Air organization. “It was more intense learning than I’ve ever done in my life.”
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.
In 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.
“It isn’t as if we agreed on everything every step of the way,” said Sharon Genasci, a member of the neighborhood’s Northwest District Association.
What about the other schools?
“Unfortunately, there are 35 other Portland area schools that are at the same risk.” - Mary Peveto, Neighbors for Clean AirGenasci said the company would not agree to some of the neighbors’ requests – including monitoring air quality along the company’s property line. And she said the fact the neighbors had to do all the legwork themselves to reduce potentially harmful pollution around schools is “a terrible indictment” of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. She would prefer to see the agency do more to control air pollution in all the neighborhoods of concern – not just hers.
“It begs the question about the amount of resources a community has to muster and whether this is really the most effective and efficient way to regulate toxic air emissions,” said Peveto. “Unfortunately, there are 35 other Portland area schools that are at the same risk.”
But for a do-it-yourself project, the local community on Tuesday collectively agreed, it’s a pretty big achievement.
“We did the best we could do. This was all we could muster,” Aubrey Baldwin, the neighborhood’s attorney with the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, told the crowd. “Whether you sit here skeptically or optimistically tonight, it’s a step forward from the past.”
“Just the beginning”
There are still a lot of questions remaining: What will happen after the five-year agreement is over? What about the other polluters in the neighborhood? What about the other Portland schools flagged for being exposed to harmful air pollution? Why isn’t the state doing more to step up its air quality rules?
George Davis, a permit writer for Oregon DEQ, said in lieu of stronger air quality regulations other communities are looking to follow the ESCO model in their neighborhoods. But it’s yet to be seen how the agreement will play out. A neighborhood advisory council will be formed to monitor the company’s progress over the next five years.
“For some of us, it feels like the end of the process,” said Ron Walters, president of the Northwest District Association. “But in reality it’s just the beginning.”