Illustration by Tripper Dungan

A GIANT CLOUD of acid drifted from Precision Castparts last Wednesday, May 11, wafting over Milwaukie and parts of Southeast Portland.

A power outage at the factory, which manufactures metal parts for aerospace and weapons companies, caused a chunk of titanium to linger too long in an acid bath, forming the noxious cloud.

Then, roughly 12 hours later, Precision Castparts made national headlines: Not for the acid cloud, which sent two employees and two firefighters to the hospital, but for making $30 million more than it expected to in the most recent quarter. Precision Castparts says the release of its earnings was planned far in advance and is not related to the accident.

Regardless, it's likely that none of that profit will go to paying any sort of penalty for the acid cloud. Since it was considered a mistake out of Precision Castparts' control, the company is unlikely to have committed any violation in the state's eyes.

The acid cloud is an extreme example of the legal pollutants released daily by Portland heavy industry. While plants create much-needed jobs, people who live nearby say the state is neglecting concerns about air quality.

Howie Oakes lives about half a mile from Precision Castparts, along SE Johnson Creek Boulevard. Although Clackamas County and Portland's Emergency Management were supposed to warn residents to stay inside after HAZMAT teams were deployed to deal with the cloud, Oakes is one of many residents who says he wasn't notified. Oakes has been fighting with local government over another industrial polluter nearby: fiberglass plant McClure Industries. That company releases styrene into the air, which neighbors say has a "nauseating" smell on hot days.

"It's a really strong smell that we can even taste in our mouths sometimes. My kids don't want to play outside," says Oakes. Neighbors have filed 16 complaints with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) about the smell over the past two years, but DEQ has not taken action. The factory isn't emitting any more pollutants than its permit allows.

The same is true of Precision Castparts. Though it received a D-minus environmental rating in a 2009 review by Roberts Environmental Center and is ranked as the nation's 21st worst corporate air polluter by University of Massachusetts' Political Economy Research Institute, it sends up far less than the 99 tons of carbon monoxide and 39 tons of sulfur dioxide it's allowed to emit annually.

The state sets "generic" pollutant levels for manufacturing facilities around Oregon, so the amount of pollutants allowed is the same regardless of whether an industry's near homes or in the middle of nowhere.

In response to neighbor concerns about McClure Industries, the DEQ did an odor survey in March (though residents stress that the smell is not bad during chilly months) and held a public hearing in December when the fiberglass plant's permit came up for renewal. A report from that hearing, which neighbors expected to have in hand by January, is not yet complete.

In the absence of a state crackdown on the smell, DEQ representatives recommended Oakes and other residents write up a Good Neighbor Agreement with McClure.

"I'm not really sure what that means," says Oakes. "The odor is there, we're assaulted by it daily. What else is there to do but get them to get rid of the odor?"

Northwest Portland residents faced similar frustrations when they formed a group, Neighbors for Clean Air, and tried to pressure DEQ to reduce pollution from the ESCO plant on NW 25th. The metal recycler employs 750 people and releases about 206,390 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air annually. ["Breathing Wheezy", News, Aug 13, 2009]

After 15 years of debate, ESCO agreed last year to work with neighbors to reduce its pollutants... not due to state sanctions, but to neighborhood organizing.

"The onus is completely on the community to motivate or inspire change," says Mary Peveto, who has led the campaign since 2008. "The state tells us to work with the company, but my experience working on this full-time is that it's not a fair way to work. How are we supposed to get leverage with big companies that can afford lawyers?"