Those are what're called warning signs, people. Sadly, last night at around 6pm, someone at the company slipped up and "a huge chunk of titanium got spilled into a vat of acid." This resulted in a giant orange, acidic cloud emerging from the plant and floating across Milwaukie. Four people wound up in the hospital, HAZMAT teams told everyone within a half-mile to stay inside their homes and today the nearby Whitman School is closed.
Today the cloud is apparently gone and news of the terrifying acid cloud has been superseded by news that Precision Castparts made $30 million more this quarter than it planned to. Hooray Precision Castparts! Please invest some of your profits into not injuring your neighbors with acid clouds.
So how could this happen? To get an understanding of how polluting industry, neighborhoods, and environmental regulations work in Portland, I talked with Mary Peveto, who has been leading community group PDXAIR to pressure NW Portland company ESCO to clean up it act. Quick Q&A below the cut.
MERC: So how much do we know about what Precision Castparts puts in the air on a daily basis?
MARY PEVETO: We know very little, which is very typical of the scenario of our industrial neighbors among us. The one place where ESCO and I agree is they've had a unique amount of scrutiny on their activities. In the last 24 months, we've been effective on getting that scrutiny to actually reduce their pollution in the neighborhood, but there was 15 years of doing basically nothing. We've had some privileges for organizing in our neighborhood and that's just not the case in all communities that are sitting next to large sources of pollution. But even with those privileges, change has taken 15 years and hasn't been an easy go.
MERC: What's your perception of the role industry, citizens, and the state play in controlling air pollution?
PEVETO: I think that the industries continue to be able to wield a lot of influence over state legislators, who say there's no reason for state regulators to push for anything stricter for pollutants than the federal standard. The chair of the DEQ's [Department of Environmental Quality] rulemaking body told us, basically, that he can't help us if we live in a toxic hotspot, it's up to us as a community to work out a good neighbor agreement with the industry. So we asked for an example of a successful good neighbor agreement that had led to reducing pollution in the state, but there hasn't been a single one. Plus, how are we as neighbors supposed to get leverage with this big companies that can afford lawyers? ESCO has a full-time lawyer sitting through these meetings with us all the time. The state tells us to work with the company, but my experience over two years of working on this full-time is that it's not a fair way to work on air pollution regulation.
MERC: Do you think the DEQ does enough to protect citizens from air pollution?
PEVETO: Most of the DEQ response has the intent of saying, "Don't worry." Like, for example, I cross over the Fremont Bridge every day to drop my kids off at school and there is often this huge, gray plume that comes up and sits so thickly on the bridge that it's almost like fog. My kids commented on it and we started to notice that it smelled when we drove through it. So I called DEQ to ask, "What is that?" It took about a week working with the permit writer from DEQ, but they finally get back to me and say it's KF Jacobsen, a cement company. The DEQ gives me their annual emissions and tells me they're in compliance and that it shouldn't stink. But it does! I just want to know what exactly is in that cloud I'm driving through, but getting down to that specificity is impossible.
MERC: So do you think we'll find out exactly the impact Precision Castpart's orange cloud?
PEVETO: My understanding of the process is that it will take the DEQ weeks, possibly months, to give the community any information about what could have been in that orange cloud. And in the end, it's still going to be calculated numbers on a piece of paper, their guesstimate of what was in there.