The ESCO steel parts manufacturing plant has been in NW Portland for a long time—98 years, to be exact—melting down scrap metal for new products and releasing an ample amount of toxic chemicals in the process. Not more toxic chemicals than are allowed under state and federal clean air laws, however, and as the Nob Hill neighborhood has grown up around the plant, neighbors have increasingly complained about the smell and potential impact of the estimated 206,390 pounds of toxins released annually.

After 16 years of neighborhood activism, the neighborhood and ESCO finally came to a happy agreement this week: ESCO is agreeing to cut its pollution by 20 percent over the next five years.

The details of the 80-page Good Neighbor Agreement were first reported in the Oregonian. This is a big deal, both for the neighbors who are worried about the air their kids are breathing at very nearby Chapman Elementary, and for all of Portland, which deals with the complications of industry being amid dense residential areas. While industries usually wait to change until the government forces them to, ESCO will spend $5 million upgrading its filtering system over the next five years, all of which goes beyond what environmental laws say they need to do.

"We couldn't understand why there were so many concerns, because when we looked at the data, we thought we were doing a good job," ESCO manager Ian Bingham told a meeting of over 100 people at Chapman School on Tuesday night. "But when we responded to complaints with an answer like, "We're in compliance," that answer wan't very satisfactory to neighbors... This is simply the most constructive path forward, both now and in the long term."

"This neighborhood sits as the poster child for urban density right next to old industrial development," said environmental lawyer Aubrey Baldwin. "The agreement is full of firsts, it's really a landmark moment in the history of how industry relates to its neighbors."

As part of the agreement, a neighborhood group will be able to check up on the installation of the pollution controls, ESCO will do a public release every quarter summarizing complaints about smells, and ESCO will be open for an annual public tour. In exchange, the neighborhood organizations have agreed not to challenge an upcoming ESCO permit renewal or sue ESCO for issues related to their emissions.

One of the largest activists behind the effort, Neighbors for Clean Air organizer Mary Peveto, notes that while she's happy with the agreement, every neighborhood shouldn't have to go through years to effort to get industries to evolve. ESCO is the fourth largest polluter in Portland, behind industry in North and Northeast Portland. "I think this should shine a glaring light on the deficiency of our regulatory framework for taking care of our public health concerns," says Peveto. "The amount of resources and the weight put on the community, not all communities are going to be able to pull this off."

Working with ESCO to create change took hundreds of hours of community time and resources—to do a job Peveto thinks the state should be handling. "Does this kind of method of addressing polluting hot spots really make sense? I think there's inherent issues of equity if we're saying this is the way we should address this."