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Unequal Distribution of Environmental Risks and Hazards in Portland, Oregon

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 4677 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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According to many scholars, environmental hazards throughout history have been disproportionately impacted onto disadvantaged communities (Taylor 2014, Smith 2005, Stroud 1999, David 1993). “Governments have historically been siting these hazardous, polluting and toxic facilities and dumps in the communities of people with the least power” claims Bill Arthur, the regional director for the Seattle-based Northwest Sierra Club (David 1993). The connection between pollution and poor and non-white communities is widely recognized by activists, social scientists, and government agencies as well (Stroud 1999). Taylor (2014) argues that this pattern persists throughout the United States historically and today. For example in Triana, Alabama, the 75% black residential population was exposed to contamination of waterways from a DDT manufacturing plant and the siting of a hazardous waste landfill. Residents of Triana were not told about the problem until three decades after it was originally identified, and had been eating fish and drinking from the contaminated and hazardous water (Taylor 2014). This is only one small town in the entire “Cancer Alley” of the United States, which spans all along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Here, there are detrimental health impacts and subpar standards of living. This area, although many people live here, has been denoted as an area for industry and manufacture with over 200 petrochemical facilities. The poverty rate of people living in this area is more than double the national average; and 80% of Louisiana’s African-American residents live within three miles of a hazardous industrial zoned facility (Lee 2018). Cancer Alley is a prime example of negative environmental impacts falling upon low income and minority communities. Although, as David (1993) notes, disproportionate environmental impact (or environmental racism) is not limited to the South.

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When hazards are directed towards communities of color, it is regarded as environmental racism. The term, coined by civil rights activist Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., refers to “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding, people of color from leadership of the environmental movement (Chavis 1994, p.xii). African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics are all disproportionately exposed to general environmental hazards and receive less remediation and less publicity in response to their exposure (Taylor 2014). Taylor argues that this is because of historic circumstances, such as segregation and housing discrimination, that has lead to these groups being politically and economically disadvantaged. Scholars debate whether race or economic standing is more of a predictor for disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards (Taylor 2014, Smith 2005, Holifield 2001, UCC 1987).

An important early study in the scope of analyzing disproportionate siting of environmental risks was the United Church of Christ study of 1987: “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States”. This study found that while income was an important contributing factor, race was the predominant determinant for subjectivity to environmental hazards. The study also explained that the pattern of hazardous siting in minority communities could not be simply due to chance (UCC, 1987). Smith (2005) analyzed the phenomenon of environmental inequality by using GIS mapping software populated with census data to examine patterns in Detroit, Michigan and Portland, Oregon. In both metropolitan areas, the probability of living near a landfill is highest among the economically deprived, and the likelihood of living near a Toxic Waste Superfund site is highest among the economically disadvantaged and African American populations (Smith 2005, OPAL 2017). Smith’s findings indicate that environmental hazards and risks are experienced differentially by race and socio-economic status, but that the more powerful of the two is economic deprivation.

Environmental justice activism (consisting of groups who are advocating for the environment as well as people) is a response from a community who sees disproportionate siting or environmental injustice happening in their community. The goal of environmental justice is to ensure that all people, regardless of race, national origin, or income, are protected from disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards (Holifield 2001, OPAL 2017). The dialogue between the impacted communities of environmental hazards, the regulatory agencies of the state or local government, and the groups advocating for environmental justice is something that will be heavily focused on in this study.

Taylor (2014) offers a few typical justifications from government bodies siting hazardous facilities. Siting is often backed up simply using the reasoning of economics and rationality. Industries argue that they are simply driven to control costs, and therefore they act in an economically rational way and place their facilities where it is cheapest to do so. This means that disproportionate siting or unequal distribution of environmental hazards are not the result of anything intentional from governmental bodies or industries. The “path of least resistance” is another idea discussed with the reasons for siting a hazardous facility. Because minority and low income communities are sometimes least likely or less able to resist, this means it is easier for companies to site in these communities. Companies tend to inhabit areas with little or no political power, social capital, or community efficacy (where communities can organize and bring the changes they desire) (Taylor 2014).These are just some of the many reasons or justifications for the siting of environmental hazards and who ends up becoming affected by them.

Portland, Oregon is home to many industries—but is also home to a great number of people like any other city. The negative impacts of these development projects and urban renewal on human beings tend to fall disproportionally on the disadvantaged. Although Portland is viewed as a “green” city, there are many instances of pollution and environmental hazards resulting from development and industry here. Through analyzing four case studies (and one in depth instance) of environmental hazards impacting various communities in Portland and the dialogue between governmental bodies, environmental justice activists, and affected communities—we can determine the prevalence of environmental racism and disproportionate environmental hazard impact on socially and economically disadvantaged people in Portland, Oregon.

The phenomenon of unequal distribution of environmental hazards in Portland, Oregon will be analyzed beginning with the polluted Columbia Slough. The patterns here appear to be similar to those in Triana, Alabama. Two hundred industries along the Slough has contributed to its pollution, including millions of gallons of Portland’s raw sewage that is dumped into this waterway every month. The water is also contaminated with a plethora of chemicals, including: de-icing fluid from Portland International Airport, pesticides, and toxins (leachate) from a nearby municipal landfill. Signs explicitly warn visitors not to swim, drink the water, or eat the fish from these areas. Nonetheless, people, especially poor and non-native English speakers routinely fish for food in these areas, exposing themselves to severe risks (Stroud 1999). An analysis of the toxic chemicals found in the carp pulled out of the Slough show that the DDE readings exceed what is considered safe for human consumption. DDE is a poison derivative of the insecticide DDT, which the U.S. Congress banned due to excessive toxicity more than 20 years ago. Consuming DDE can cause various health problems, among them, cancer (David 1993). There have been protests regarding pollution in the Columbia Slough since 1935; in August of 1935 the Oregonian reported a “Protest Against Columbia Slough Filth”. In 1970, the Oregon Journal told the “Columbia Slough Story: ‘Open Sewer’ Poses Hazard”. Yet, clean up of the area did not begin until 1993. The neighborhoods of this area of North Portland also have some of the highest percentages of immigrants and African-Americans in all of Oregon. Activists in Portland concur that the Slough is a condemned industrial sacrifice area (Stroud 1999). Dave Mazza, regional director of the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club asserts: “You know and I know that if these toxins were dumped in Lake Oswego, where the more affluent live, that it wouldn’t take the city five years to start working on the problem. No, there’d be hell to pay” (David, 1993).

The Grant Warehouse is another instance of environmental hazard and response to look at further. According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, this warehouse has been used as an auto repair facility, a welding shop, a lead-acid battery business, and most recently a metallurgical laboratory. Attention was first drawn to this site by Portland Police in 1998 because a number of homeless people were occupying this area. The Portland Fire Bureau and the DEQ later documented about 10,000 different chemicals, including corrosives, oxidizers, flammable/explosives, and dusts containing very high levels of lead (DEQ 2018). A few local newspapers took interest in the polluted warehouse; Portland Business Journal reported that the Grant Warehouse is an “environmental horror story” and was concerned with the fact that this building and its contents were less than 100 feet from a residence and blocks from a daycare (Back, 2000). However, there is little to no discussion of the fact that this warehouse is located in Northeast Portland near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where the demographic consists of both the highest percentages of people of color, and the lowest income levels in Portland (OPAL 2017). The DEQ also eventually requested EPA assistance to “abate the imminent and substantial endangerment the site presented, and EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division initiated a criminal inquiry based on the apparently illegal storage of chemicals” (DEQ 2018). Even though this mess of chemicals was found at the scene, and toxic concentrations were tested for and found in the nearby soil, the DEQ lists no environmental or health threats under this clean-up sites informational page. Neither the city nor the state claims to have been aware of the types or amounts of chemicals being stored at the warehouse prior to 1998 (Parker 1998, Back 2000). As of July 2006, the building and its contaminants were moved to a hazardous waste facility and “all known areas of soil contamination have been remediated to either non-detect levels or residential risk-based concentrations” and no further action was required for the site (DEQ 2018). Erwin Grant, the owner of Grant Warehouse, was never criminally prosecuted. Although Grant Warehouse was eventually addressed and cleaned up, the chemicals had sat there for many years. The questions of why this environmental horror wasn’t addressed sooner could correlate with the low-income and minority demographic of Northeast Portland and the unequal distribution of environmental risks that come with those demographics (OPAL 2017).

The ESCO Corps Metal Foundry is another Portland industry that received public response and attention regarding their environmental (and human) harm and pollution. A news article in Cascadia Times, goes into extensive detail about the dangers from this nearby metal foundry. It reports that the pollutants emitted into the Northwest Portland air from ESCO include lead, benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, manganese, and phenol—all of which come with serious potential health risks. The article emphasizes the fact that these chemicals will accumulate in the body and do not biodegrade. Neighbors of the foundry claim to be subject to days with horrible odors that are nauseating and they said to have complained to the DEQ and inquired to them about ESCO corps (Koberstein 2011). In fact, several times the Oregon DEQ has asked ESCO for an explanation of the odors (DEQ 2018). After receiving complaints and questions from both the community and the DEQ, ESCO often suggests some other nearby company may be at fault. “There were no upset conditions at ESCO that might have contributed to the very strong odors you describe,” said a 2008 letter from ESCO environmental engineer Brian Krytenberg to the DEQ. Krytenberg also asks for nearby residents to “please understand that there are many other sources of odor in our area”. The area where the foundry is indeed located among other industries, including all of Oregon’s gas storage tanks, yet ESCO never directly answers the concerns at this point (Koberstein 2011). The Oregonian wrote a story on the ESCO Corps situation, entitled “Northwest Portland neighbors push and work with ESCO to reduce pollution”. It focuses specifically on a woman named Mary Peveto and her successful campaign to address and change the metal foundry’s amount of air pollution. This campaign prompted ESCO to agree to cut air pollution by about 20 percent, and to “give neighbors a foot in the foundry’s door”. ESCO Corps agreed to a voluntary good neighbor agreement with their 2013 renewed air permit. The article claimed that “it’s an uncommon victory for community activism” (Learn 2013). Mary Peveto’s campaign was thought to be successful for quite a few reasons. The Northwest community is one of Portland’s wealthiest areas, which attributed to their availability of time and funding to organize and their political/social power to reach a polluting industry.

           “[The campaign] piggybacked 16 years of monitoring and odor

complaints led by the Northwest District Association’s tenacious

air quality committee.  It drew in lawyers, pollution experts and

parents with the wherewithal to mount protests, pressure regulators

and untangle cryptic rules and air toxics data. And it aimed

at a company with a century of ties to the neighborhood

that chose negotiation over threatening to pull up stakes” (Learn 2013).

This quote demonstrates the arguable privilege of people in the Northwest Portland community, and everything that made it possible to orchestrate a positive change to an environmental hazard impacting their neighborhood. Although the ESCO Corps metal foundry wasn’t sited near a low-income or disadvantaged community, this instance shows the differences of public response and availability to enable change in their surrounding areas in regard to environmental risks and hazards.

The Daimler Trucks North America plant in Portland has received a bit of public attention, also concerning smells and the air pollution emitted from this location. Daimler Trucks is located on Swan Island, and this results in North Portland and the University Park neighborhood being subject to what they believe is the fumes and pollution coming from the plant. “It was very clearly paint” claims a resident of University Park (Schick 2016). As of 2010, Daimler Trucks had hundreds of complaints, more than any other hazardous facility in Oregon (DEQ 2018). Unlike the campaign to lower ESCO Corps’ hazardous pollution, Daimler’s neighbors weren’t as successful. The “Neighbors for Clean Air” and the North Portland community attempted to get the DEQ to require more pollution controls on the company’s operating permit when it came up for renewal. Voluntary solutions were also discussed, but nothing came of this (DEQ 2018). Even after calling elected officials, a governor organized task force, and continual public attention regarding Daimler trucks’ did not address the issues at hand for quite some time. In 2016, the DEQ investigated into the pollution/bad fumes and complaints they had been receiving and put out a “Nuisance Odor Panel Review Report” that many, including University of Portland professor Ted Eckmann, criticized in regard to its methodology (DEQ 2018, Schick 2016). Ultimately, the report said that Daimler was not causing a nuisance odor. However, in August of 2018, the DEQ issued Daimler Trucks a notice of odor nuisance. Data was gathered over a five-year period (including data from DEQ’s air monitoring stations, DEQ odor studies, and information from DEQ’s complaints system, as well as odor data collected by the University of Portland and submitted to DEQ) to bring about this direct attention to the long-standing problem. The notice required Daimler to enter into a “Best Work Practices Agreement” with the Oregon DEQ to reduce odors coming from the facility. It said in the notice that Daimler had 20 days to respond to the agreement with the DEQ, otherwise they would “pursue enforcement” (DEQ 2018). There was no update to the DEQ’s webpage concerning the plant and any negotiations that took place after that notice was issued, therefore there is no determination whether Daimler complied with the DEQ’s requests. The makeup of North Portland varies, but it is one of the focuses of the Portland chapter of OPAL, an environmental justice organization because of the neighborhood’s proximity to the Willamette River and the industries that border it.

Portland (Multnomah County) has a plethora of environmental issues just like any other American city, as seen by the 71 page long Oregon DEQ Environmental Cleanup database list (DEQ 2018). It is notable that more recently (in the past two decades), there has been an increasing amount of attention and pressure by the public and news media, drawn to individual industries and regulatory bodies like the DEQ to pay closer attention to environmental issues such as pollution. It is also important to look at the areas who have been successful in their attempts to enact beneficial change, and it is crucial to understand and consider the areas in Portland who do not have the resources or power to easily enact change in their community. Arguably, the Columbia Slough, the Grant Warehouse, and possibly Daimler Trucks, are evident to be instances of unequal distribution of environmental risks and hazards onto the North and Northeast Portland communities because they are especially consisting of low-income households. The ESCO Corps Metal Foundry showed the differences between communities with the resources and organizing (political) power, and the lack of response or change enacted by any of the other sites over varying ranges of time. With all of these sites discussed, and many other sites of environmental hazards throughout Portland, it is important to not ignore the social and ethical spheres of the environmental issues such as pollution.


  • Back, B. J. (2000, March 12). Grant Warehouse: Another environmental horror. Portland Business Journal.
  • Chavis, B. F., Jr., (1994). Preface. In R. D. Bullard, editor, Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, xi–xii.
  • David, P. (1993). Environmental racism not limited to south. The Skanner (Seattle). Retrieved from proquest.com
  • DEQ (2018). Daimler Trucks. State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Retrieved               from www.oregon.gov/deq/programs.
  • DEQ (2018). Environmental Cleanup Site Information (ECSI) Database Site Summary Full Report – Details for Site ID 2385, Grant Warehouse. State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Retrieved from deq.state.or.us.
  • Holifield, R. (2001). Defining Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism. Urban Geography, 22(1), 78-90. Retrieved from researchgate.net.
  • Koberstein, P. (2011, March 8). ESCO Fills Portland Air with Carcinogens. Cascade Times.
  • Learn, S. (2013, May 28). Northwest Portland neighbors push and work with ESCO to reduce pollution. The Oregonian.
  • Lee, T. (2018). “Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems”. MSNBC. Retrieved from msnbc.com.
  • Portland, Oregon’s Toxic Air Problem. Series of Oregon Public Broadcasting (2018). Retrieved from opb.org.
  • Parker, T. Y. (1998). Hazardous waste found in warehouse. The Skanner (Seattle). Retrieved from proquest.com.
  • Schick, T., & Profita, C. (2016, April 20). Neighbors To North Portland Polluter Say DEQ Ignored Their Complaints. Oregon Public Broadcasting.
  • Smith, C. L. (2005). The Importance of Space: Environmental Inequality in Post-Industrial Detroit, Michigan and Portland, Oregon. Conference Papers — American Sociological Association, 1-22. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Stroud, E. (1999). Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon. Radical History Review, (74), 65. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Taylor, D. E. (2014). Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility. New York and London: New York University Press.
  • [UCC] United Church of Christ. (1987). Toxic Waste and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites, x- xvi. Commission for Racial Justice.


Hypotheses: Environmental hazards resulting from development projects tend to fall onto the disadvantaged. People with less political power and monetary resources to move away from or change something they don’t like are disproportionately taken advantage of by getting stuck with environmental and health hazards from various types of facilities.

Research Questions:

i.)     Does race have an impact on the environmental hazards a person will face?Does economic standing? Why is this? How can we overcome this?

ii.)   What is the dialogue between different social communities on environmental hazard exposure?

Participants: include 2 different members of each a state government (DEQ) employee and a local environmental organization. I contacted both through email, and provided both with an informational statement about this research project and their rights as a participant.


i)       We analyzed five different specific examples of environmental racism or differential hazard exposure by social class in Portland, Oregon through analyzing existing news articles, public records, and non-profit organization websites.

a).  The sites found include: the Columbia Slough, the Grant Warehouse, ESCO Corps Metal Foundry, Daimler North America, and Bullseye Glass Factory.

ii)     We further analyzed the Bullseye Glass Factory as a case study and use existing public records and news stories identifying arguments justifying and explaining the project or pattern as well as opposing it.

iii)   We conducted interviews with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and OPAL to further gain insight on the different arguments and perspectives associated with the project or pattern in the context of each group’s different rationale and ethical orientations.

iv)   We further concluded from our existing document analysis and interviews that ____________________________.


Informational Statement Regarding Interviews on Environmental Hazards:

Hello. I am trying to learn more about how environmental hazards seem to disproportionately impact minority and low income communities for an Ethics research project for the University of Portland. I am wondering if you would be willing to answer a few questions about environmental hazard sites in your capacity as (a state employee of the Department of Environmental Quality (OR) a member of a local environmental justice organization). If you are comfortable discussing this, I will be asking you some questions regarding the specific sites of environmental hazards I am studying in detail. If there are any questions you don’t wish to answer that is fine. If you aren’t the best person to ask about these issues, can you direct me to someone who would be in a position to explain hazardous site placement and arguments for and against such things.

Interview Questions for Public Officials

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.

  1. Basically, I’m wondering how the process of determining a place to site a hazardous facility works?
  2. What are the determining factors for a state environmental regulator to allow a hazardous facility in an area?
  3. Specifically, what if anything can you tell me about the siting and public response to the ESCO Corps Metal Foundry or Daimler North America?
  4. Some have argued that the Columbia Slough has historically been used as a dumping ground. Why do you think this area was used for dumping waste?
  5. What is the typical procedure for cleaning up a hazardous site? How long does it typically take and are there usually complications?
  6. Do you know specifically anything about the Grant Warehouse and its clean up?
  7. In your line of work, who do you think, what kinds of people do you think are most likely to be exposed to environmental hazards?

Interview Questions for Environmental Justice Organization

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.

  1. In your experience, in Portland, who do you think, what kinds of people do you think are most likely to be exposed to environmental hazards?
  2. What are your biggest sites of concern or work focused on right now in Portland? Why?
  3. What, if anything, can you tell me about the community response to perceived hazards associated with Daimler Trucks North America?
  4. What, if anything, can you tell me about the community response to perceived hazards associated with the Bullseye Glass Factory?
  5. How would you currently describe the status and problems associated with the Bullseye Glass Factory?
  6. Specifically, what if anything can you tell me about the siting and public response to the
  7. ESCO Corps Metal Foundry or Daimler North America?
  8. What is the typical procedure for cleaning up a hazardous site? How long does it typically take and are there usually complications?
  9. Do you know specifically anything about the Grant Warehouse and its clean up?
  10. In your line of work, who do you think, what kinds of people do you think are most likely to be exposed to environmental hazards?


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