Two of Oregon’s most economically disadvantaged and racially diverse communities — one in Portland and the other on the south coast — are getting a boost in their fight against air pollution.
The air-quality challenges facing “environmental justice communities” are being highlighted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s grants to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, environmental nonprofit Verde and the Confederated Tribes of Coos Lower Umpqua & Siuslaw Indians. The grants are aimed at increasing air quality monitoring and awareness in communities where many residents are poor, people of color, and disproportionately burdened by pollution — like those living near industrial facilities or highways.
DEQ spokesperson Lauren Wirtis said the agency is set to receive nearly $500,000 that will be used to work with local communities, universities, and local agencies that will co-design a monitoring framework to collect better data that could lead to more action from the state.
“Part of what that looks like is allowing communities to leverage a library of instruments that DEQ maintains that would monitor [particulate matter] and diesel in their local area,” she said.
The agency will also be working with Neighbors for Clean Air, an environmental air quality advocacy group. Executive Director Mary Peveto said she’s thrilled more air quality monitoring units will be installed that will collect data to be collected in real-time. She said it will allow members of the community to ask questions about how the data is collected, what areas are most impacted and what can be done to reduce pollution.
Peveto said the grant money “first and foremost, I think, helps to immediately recenter this in community empowerment when the data is created or collected.”
The community-based environmental advocacy group Verde will receive nearly $120,000 to install air quality monitors in the Cully neighborhood. The monitoring will focus on airborne black carbon, or soot.
Cully is one of Portland’s most racially diverse neighborhoods, where more than half of the residents are people of color. According to DEQ data, the Cully neighborhood experienced the second-highest levels of arsenic compared to other sites in 2018.
Verde’s Oriana Magnera said more needs to be done to reduce air pollution in the neighborhood.
Cully is exposed to aviation pollution from nearby Portland International Airport, Magnera said. It’s also polluted by diesel trucks and trains that pass through the area. And glass-recycling and asphalt-grinding plants add to the neighborhood’s pollution.
Magnera said she hopes the air quality monitors will give community members the opportunity to collect their own data and weave it with their lived experience. She said she’s also hopeful the data is another way to identify other polluters in the area and ensure there is an opportunity to hold them accountable.
“Having actual hard data is sometimes the only way that state or federal agencies will listen and actually value community feedback,” she said.
The Coos tribes’ $500,000 share of the grant will increase community engagement and education on outdoor and indoor quality and develop a network of air quality monitors, said Chief Executive Officer Lee Ann Wander.
Without adequate air-quality monitoring around the tribes’ reservation and trust lands, “there is a presumption that coastal air is always clean,” she said.
“Because of this misconceived notion, many of our at-risk community members spend more time outdoors and suffer from health issues directly relating to poor air quality,” Wander said.