science environment

Washington More Responsive Than Oregon on Air Complaints, But Problems Remain

By Tony Schick (OPB)
Portland, Oregon April 21, 2016 5 a.m.
The Nucor Steel Mill in Seattle.

The Nucor Steel Mill in Seattle.

Gary Lund, Flickr/Creative Commons

When residents in Longview, Washington, complained about dust from the nearby Export Grain Terminal, local air regulators took notice.


The Southwest Clean Air Agency has issued the facility eight notices of violation in the past five years.

Prompt responses to citizen complaints are a goal for the regional air agency, director Uri Papish said. When the agency receives a citizen complaint about air pollution, an inspector gets in a car and gets on site within an hour.

“A lot of enforcement is complaint driven,” Papish said. “That’s how you find out about stuff.”

That’s not always the case across the Columbia River in Portland, where some neighborhoods have complained about odors and emissions from nearby industry for years, with little input from state regulators.

EarthFix examined policies and complaint data for clean air agencies in the Northwest and found those in Washington take more steps to resolve air and odor complaints than Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality.

Regulators at local agencies there have taken enforcement actions against facilities with a high number of complaints more frequently than those at Oregon’s DEQ.

Related: Neighbors To North Portland Polluter Say DEQ Ignored Their Complaints

Stu Clark, air quality manager for the statewide Washington Department of Ecology, said his agency has the same problem as Oregon’s DEQ: A high volume of complaints across a large state, too few inspectors to give them all the attention they need and no dedicated funding source to pay for their complaint system.

But Washington has eight regional air agencies in addition to Ecology. Those cover many of the state’s most populated and industrial regions.

“Air pollution problems tend to be driven by local circumstances and they need to be tailored to local concerns,” Clark said.


Oregon has one regional air agency in the Eugene area. The failure of state regulators to detect toxic air hotspots in Portland has many politicians and clean air advocates questioning whether the city needs its own local air quality board.

But Washington isn’t perfect. Even in areas where local air agencies make a point of being responsive to complaints, many residents are frustrated with lingering air quality concerns.

In Port Townsend on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, more than 1,500 complaints have been filed against the Port Townsend Paper Company in the past six years.

In a few cases those prompted the Department of Ecology to crack down on lapses in pollution control, but Gretchen Brewer, the issue’s foremost advocate, says overall the agency has done little on the issue. Her citizen group filed a lawsuit in 2012 to forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to review regulations for pulp mills.

In Seattle, aerospace engineer Anuscheh Nawaz began to notice an unnatural smell a few years ago in the air near her condo. It was an industrial smell, but almost salty, she said.

Like the trained scientist she was, Nawaz began tracking odor observations in a spreadsheet. She compared them with weather, rode her bike around suspected sources and pinpointed as the source the Nucor steel mill. She complained to Puget Sound Clean Air several time. She wasn’t the only one.

“They were quite responsive” Nawaz said. An inspector would visit the site when she complained, “but it just never worked out that he could come over on the day that it smelled, or that he was in the neighborhood to be able to verify the smell.”

Puget Sound Clean Air has 12 inspectors covering four counties, which includes the industrial districts of both Seattle and Tacoma. The workload can strain their ability to respond to complaints.

Records show the agency issued a notice of violation to Nucor Steel in March 2015 for having emissions that were a detriment to people and property. Nucor did not respond to an interview request.

Related: Neighbors To North Portland Polluter Say DEQ Ignored Their Complaints

Pregnant and concerned for her family, Nawaz recently moved away from the steel mill.

She never learned exactly what the smell was or what danger it posed. And she hasn’t let go of that.

“I felt like it was not right,” she said. “I was here trying to figure out if I should be concerned about my health, and I could not get agencies or people to just tell me. And this was not only for me, but also for my unborn child.”

Hoping to help others avoid the same problem, the former NASA engineer began began working a technology startup that aims to develop cheap, wearable air monitors.

“That injustice, that feeling of not having access to information I feel like I should have access to, that definitely fueled my passion,” she said.