Marc Searcy

THE ESCO METAL PARTS manufacturing plant has been melting down scrap metal in Northwest Portland for 98 years. But just last week, the plant took a historic step in hopes of becoming a better neighbor in the dense, posh environs that have grown up around it: ESCO will voluntarily spend $5 million to cut its pollution 20 percent over the next five years.

The agreement comes after 16 years of neighborhood activism, with residents rallying around the poor air quality and smelly fumes at Chapman Elementary School ["Breathing Wheezy," News, Aug 13, 2009]. But while it's good news for NW Portland, can it be a template for working with the city's other big polluters? What about the air in neighborhoods without the resources of Nob Hill?

"The amount of resources and the weight put on the community—not all communities are going to be able to pull this off," says Mary Peveto of Neighbors for Clean Air, who devoted the last three years to hashing out a "good neighbor agreement" with ESCO. "This should shine a glaring light on the deficiency of our regulatory framework for taking care of our public health concerns. There's inherent issues of equity if we're saying this is the way we should address this."

More than 100 people packed into Chapman Elementary's auditorium last Tuesday, November 29, to hear the details of the deal. ESCO has never emitted more toxins or particulate matter than allowed by state or federal law, but that doesn't mean neighbors aren't bothered by the 206,390 pounds of toxins the plant does release annually.

In exchange for ESCO agreeing to cut its pollution and allow citizen oversight of aspects of its operation, NW Portland neighborhood associations agreed not to protest an upcoming renewal of ESCO's permit or to sue over issues related to emissions.

"This neighborhood sits as the poster child for urban density right next to old industrial development," said the neighbors' 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."

ESCO was Portland's fourth-largest polluter in 2008, behind companies based in industrial areas of NW, North, and Northeast Portland ["Portland's Top Five Polluters," News, June 24, 2010]. There has been activism in NE neighborhoods around clean air, but nothing at the scale of the coordinated, years-long effort seen in NW.

Outer Southeast neighborhoods got a scare from their industrial neighbors this spring, when Johnson Creek-based Precision Castparts accidentally released a giant acid cloud that sent two firemen and two employees to the hospital. The state announced its punishment for the incident last month: a mere $600 fine. If they want cleaner air, the onus for change is on industry's neighbors.

"The important things here are for the people to stay active on the issue and to communicate with the community and leaders," says Ardenwald-Johnson Creek Neighborhood Association Secretary Bryan Dorr. "Change can happen."