Cross Posted from Mismanaging Perception
In what has become an ongoing series of cycling tours aimed at shaming corporate polluters and exposing the greenwashing going on in our city, Monday, April 22nd, saw scores of activists gather in Holladay park for the Portland, Oregon’s Worst Polluters Tour: Earth Day Edition. We busted concrete, planted a forest, and laid the seeds for a future without freeways.
Like previously themed bike rides, activists spoke about Portland’s brand as a green city being designed to hide the numerous sources of heavy urban pollution. In fact, as of 2007, Portland, Oregon ranked as the 3rd most polluted city in the nation, with over 62,000 contaminated sites within the city limit.
Soon after familiarizing the riders as to the proper means of moving safely as a group, the swarm of cyclists spilled out into Multnomah ave, a street that has seen a radical makeover as one of Portland’s best complete streets.
The tour descended upon the approaches of the Broadway bridge, which by coincidence happened to be celebrating it’s 100th birthday on April 22nd. On a bleak expanse of useless concrete wedged between two roads, the group spoke about several large polluters who could be seen in the distance upriver.
The group lamented the fact that the harbor Superfund site has been slow in being cleaned up, citing the Lower Willamette Group’s unwillingness to do a proper job. Two of the companies that line the harbor, Gunderson Steel and Vigor Industrial were additionally condemned for their efforts to acquire barge building contracts to haul coal down the Columbia River, should Ambre Energy’s coal export permit be approved.
From here, the tour crossed the centennial Broadway bridge and rode into downtown, stopping at a massive billboard put up by Clean Water Portland urging the city’s citizens to vote NO to fluoridation of Bull Run tap water this May. Speakers cited issues of consent, health and environmental harms, and big money interests funding the pro-fluoride campaign as sound reasons for voting no. Several weeks ago, Columbia Riverkeepers, and local chapters of the NAACP and Sierra Club all came out against fluoridation, citing the dangers to many people with preexisting illness and accumulation of fluorosilicic acid within soils and rivers.
Then it was on to the front of the ODS building, where an art installation titled Ya-Wa has sat for the last 13 years. The sculpture of sorts is an actual dead tree bound with metal, conveying a sadistic brutality against nature. It is unclear if the artist meant for this to be the image invoked. From this location, a corporate mural a block away could be seen depicting cars scattered about the hills and clouds of a picturesque country side, indicating rural expanses are somehow made better by pollution-spewing automobiles. Speakers within the tour talked about Portland’s decline as a leader in bike-friendly infrastructure, in large part to the dampening efforts of the Portland Business Alliance, who oppose street-scapes scaled for human beings over automobiles.
Next on the tour was the offices of CFM Strategic Communications, a marketing and lobbying PR firm with a client list of corrupt corporations wrecking havoc all over the world. Speakers noted CFM’s work for businesses whose brand image had been damaged over poisoning customers and violating labor laws, as well as ‘food’ giant Nestlé Water, whose former CEO recently claimed people should NOT have a right to drinking water, and that such resources should be privatized. CFM also does state lobbying for tar sands profiteers TransCanada, in what are believed to be efforts to push liquified natural gas (LNG) pipelines through Oregon.
The riders then returned to the Willamette via Tom McCall Waterfront park, and spoke briefly about how the space used to be the four-lane Harbor Drive highway. Some 45 years ago, it was citizens that demanded the highway be removed and replaced with the green space we enjoy and love today. Tom McCall is considered to be the most beloved governor Oregon has ever had, largely for being an environmental champion that many current politicians attempt to compare themselves to. While the victory against Harbor drive restored the West waterfront, the crowd spoke of the tragedy that exists the other side of the river, where the Marquam bridge blocks the view of Mt. Hood, and Interstate 5 chokes off access to the East bank of the river.
The tour then headed southward, riding under the Marquam bridge to the offices of the Zidell Marine Corporation. The site infamously has caught on fire repeatedly over the last 60 years due the large amounts of chemicals that were dumped at the site. According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), in 2005 this site was laced with metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, associated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polycholorinated-biphenyls (PCBs), and tributyl tin (TBT). In the groundwater they found antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, zinc, PCBs, ethylbenzene, xylenes, toluene, and carbon disulfide which exceeded the DEQ’s screening levels. Still contaminated today, Zidell is now doing it’s best to sell off the land to avoid having continued responsibility for cleaning up the contaminated riverfront. Despite the obvious problems of having people work and live on a toxic site, Zidell’s rhetoric matches the ‘sustainable development’ greenwashing that has earned Portland much acclaim.
Pushing further south, the tour came upon an abandoned parking lot that was quickly being reclaimed by moss and other plants. The riders decided to help out the rewilding effort by pounding a few holes in the pavement and planting several edible plants.
Having worked up a sweat breaking through the bleak asphalt, the riders moved on to a residential neighborhood to talk about a site that remains contaminated with lead and other toxic materials in the wake of a smelting building owned by the Multnomah Metal Company for some 60 years. The smelter was demolished in 1975, and homes were built on the site the following year. It wasn’t until 2003 that EPA suspected the area might be contaminated with heavy metals. Oregon DEQ took soil samples that indicated dangerously high levels of lead in the soil – but neighborhood residents were not made aware of the problem until 2012, when USA Today released an investigative report. Subsequent soil sampling showed lead levels more than 130 times higher than EPA’s ‘safe’ level for lead at 400 ppm. Neighborhood residents interviewed seem split on whether they are upset with DEQ for failing to inform them of the lead levels immediately, or because confirming the contamination caused their property values to plummet.
Heading back northward, the tour stopped at the offices of Precision Cast Parts (PCP). Riders were surprised to learn that the fourth worst toxic air polluter in the entire country was based right here in Portland, and that nearly half of its toxic exposure was occurring at two plants less than 3 miles apart. PCP became famous in May of 2011 after a toxic cloud of acid was released from its plant along Johnson Creek Boulevard.
PCP was fined just $600 for its toxic cloud in 2011, despite the fact that even minimal exposure to high-concentration nitrogen dioxide is “extremely toxic” according to the CDC. At the time, a PCP spokesperson assured the public that they were never at risk, despite the fact that the fire department attempted to evacuate everyone within a half-mile radius. Elieen Drake, Vice President for administrative and legal affairs, assured reporters, “If it’s safe for employees to work here, then it’s safe for the neighborhood.”
As it turns out, OSHA has cited Precision Cast Parts for 32 safety violations at the two plants in the Portland metro area, totaling $26,050 in fines. Nine of these violations had the potential to cause death. In PCP’s factories, parts are dipped into large tanks of high-temperature caustic chemicals like sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. In 2001, one worker died after falling into one of the tanks while trying to removing a stuck part.
After an afternoon of touring depressing sites of contamination and the offices of criminal polluters, the group was ready for some positive uplift. Continuing northward, the ride crossed the Willamette to the east side of the river. Here, they came to rest in a wedge of green space next to the noxious Interstate 5 freeway. Started several weeks ago, the group began adding to a community garden at the location, digging up the weeds and replacing them with edible lettuces, broccoli, chard, and onions.
Hand made signs reading ‘Food Can’t Grow Where Traffic Flows’ were placed along the edge of the freeway, eliciting honks from passing motorists. Truckers and school children alike witnessed the riders enjoying the evening sunshine, digging and opening beers.
A proclamation was then read, declaring the intent to continue expanding the garden until the day that he Interstate 5 traffic sewer is removed, liberating the east riverfront from the pollution and depression that currently exists here. It was during this proclamation that the name of this garden was read aloud, the Jane Jacobs Community Food Forest.
Excerpted from the proclamation:
Like NY City in the 1960s, Portland was heavily damaged by the auto-centric monstrosities of Robert Moses. Jane Jacobs successfully organized communities to stop additional freeways from destroying the heart of Manhattan, but until today, the people of Portland could not stop the I-5. This Earth Day in the year 2013, we honor her legacy by committing to a mission – to restore Portland’s east waterfront. We have historical precedent behind us. We have an ecological crisis in front of us. Long live the JANE JACOBS COMMUNITY FOOD FOREST!
A bottle of champagne was popped and shared in celebration of the garden’s christening.
With the plants safely in the ground, the riders again headed southward along the east bank of the Willamette. Near Ross Island, the tour settled in to watch the setting sun and to build a small bonfire. Music was enjoyed, drinks were sipped. As the day turned to night, mention was made of how the now mutilated Ross Island once was planned to be a park. Instead, the island was gutted over the last 80 years to provide gravel for the manufacturing of cement buildings.
As a ‘post-industrial’ city, Portland has moved away from a reputation of being polluted, but the reality is those polluters of the past have left a legacy of contamination that has not been repaired. And there are still corporations currently contaminating our air and water on a daily basis. Portland’s image as a sustainable city may impress the NY Times, but the truth is that our city is a cesspool of toxic chemicals and ecologically reckless companies who care about nothing but their profits.
If we’re going to craft Portland into a truly livable, breathable, progressive metropolis, we must continue speaking truth to power, and continue to take direct action. Radical change is only possible when people stand up and start demanding the kind of urban habitats they deserve.
See you in the streets.