On March 7, 2017, I attended a public meeting hosted by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to hear community concerns about air toxin issues in the neighborhood of Bridges Middle School, a local nonprofit school serving 5th – 8th grade students with learning differences where I have the honor of serving as Principal. This was the first I had heard of such concerns in our area, having completely missed news reports about the “Big Stink” in North Portland. Though we were well aware of the foul odors that plague our neighborhood.
At this meeting, where community members were given the opportunity to comment and ask questions of various DEQ staff, I heard from dozens of frustrated neighbors about their unanswered demand for detailed data and health-focused remedies for the persistent and toxic stench in the air. I learned about two oil re-recycling companies in our neighborhood that have been allowed to continue operation years after a known lapse in DEQ permitting and discovery of the undocumented removal of air toxin purifying systems at these sites. I learned that data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent air sample testing revealed air toxin levels above public health benchmark.
At the end of the meeting I commented to the DEQ officials, voicing my frustration in the lack of communication and I vowed to be at every one of these community meetings in the future and to be in regular contact with their staff to get answers for my families and staff. Realizing there was an immediate need to inform our families of the potential air toxin risks and seeing an opportunity to use my privilege of position and community connections to the benefit of many, I got to work.
Immediately after the meeting I began community outreach as well as an in-depth investigation to determine what facts were known, what was unknown and what we needed to do to inform our families as soon as possible of any potential health risk. I met with local neighborhood and community groups, air quality advocacy organizations, elected officials and government agencies, building a coalition of supportive partners. Many have offered their collaborative support through the sharing of resources, knowledge and professional expertise to help ensure that Bridge Middle School have a prominent voice in the public debate surrounding this important issue.
DEQ and partner agencies are working to develop enforceable requirements for these oil re-refineries to reduce odors and emissions. However, I do believe there is room for improvement in this developing permitting process and I will be advocating consistently to assure continued and accurate emissions data be required for these, and other, polluters to help keep our students and staff informed and safe. There is also opportunity in the legislative process to increase emissions reporting requirements, like through the proposed HB 2669 – the Community Toxins Reporting Act – for which I delivered support testimony before the Oregon House Committee on Energy and Environment at the Capitol on March 20th.
It was invigorating to play an active role influencing lawmakers and it served as a great reminder of how lucky we are here in Oregon. Our legislative process is incredibly accessible to the public and your voice is encouraged and needed to inform those elected to represent our views, values and beliefs. I strongly encourage you to put your Love in Action by visiting OregonLegislature.gov today. Type in your zip code or keywords of issues of concern to you and learn about active bills this session and when and where you can lend your important supportive or opposing voice.
You really can make a difference, if you Act!