Neighbors gather to discuss fears of air toxins in Cully

May 26, 2016

Alma Velázquez gave a presentation in Spanish to residents who were just learning about the region's air quality concerns

Neighbors and community activists gathered this week in the Cully neighborhood to discuss concerns about air pollution and a fear that regulators have ignored this largely low-income immigrant community.

Neighbors in Southeast Portland agitated earlier this year after air monitoring found possibly unsafe levels of arsenic and cadmium near Bullseye Glass Company. Alma Velázquez, a volunteer with Cully Air Action Team said it was, in part, because those neighbors worked together to demand action, that Gov. Kate Brown took notice. 

On May 19, Brown ordered Bullseye to temporarily stop using lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and other heavy metals on any furnace that doesn’t have air pollution controls.

“The people who make the most noise are the ones they listen to the most. Those neighbors are well organized,” Velázquez said. “But what’s happening here? What’s going on in our neighborhood? Really, nothing is happening.”

Velázquez, along staff from Verde and Living Cully, met with Spanish-speaking residents who said they knew little about the concerns that have led many to call for a complete overhaul of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for monitoring and regulating air quality.

She said she called 211 first, to find out if the state planned to do any studies in the Cully Neighborhood, where a U.S. Forest Service study found concentrations of heavy metals in moss samples. They directed her to the state’s English-language Safe Air Oregon website. 

“I couldn’t find any information on Cully or whether they’re going to investigate here,” she told her neighbors. “That worries me. Why aren’t there any studies being done here?”

Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Jennifer Flynt said the department hasn’t forgotten about the Cully neighborhood. They’re addressing concerns in neighborhoods where the highest levels of heavy metals were found in a study by the U.S. Forest Service. First it was the neighborhood in Southeast Portland surrounding Bullseye Glass. Next it was in North Portland, near Harriet Tubman Elementary. Now they’re investigating air quality concerns in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, where Precision Castparts operates a factory. And staff are also working to find the sources for other  hot spots in Portland, even where air quality monitors are not set up yet.
This summer and fall, the US Forest Service will share final information about arsenic, nickel and lead hot spots in neighborhoods across Portland, as well as other metals. This will help the state understand where there may be air or soil pollution. 

Neighbors in Cully gathered May 23 around folding tables at Living Cully Plaza, a onetime strip club that has been converted into a community center. Worn red carpet still covers the floors. Wide mirrors and black-and-white tile lines the walls. Velázquez prepared a presentation (or listen in Spanish) based on the three large public meetings held in English. In the place of a projector, she strung up the blank side of a wide canvas sheet previously used in a campaign to save a nearby mobile home park.

Neighbors raise air quality questions they would pose to state officials

The place smelled of warm panuchos prepared in a food cart nearby, and children played and chattered while their parents discussed their concerns.

Manuela Interian, who moved from Gresham 10 years ago, didn’t find out about the air quality concerns until an English-speaking friend told her about a month ago.  “I was surprised,” she said.  “We’re in a place with such clear air.” But the airport is nearby. So now she wonders.

Vebia Mendoza heard the news on Channel 8. With five kids, “you worry,” she said. “I thought it would be clearer here.” 

Ana Mendoza works at Hacienda CDC, in an office that is just steps from the apartment where she has lived for 17 years. She hunched over the table, writing on Post It notes the issues her neighbors want to raise with state officials.

“When are they going to tell us about the air quality in Cully?” one asked. 

“Why don’t they do as they do in Mexico City, and not allow cars to drive on certain days?” another asks.

“We need more information in Spanish,” one woman said.

Matt Hoffman, who works on air quality issues for the Multnomah County Health Department, has attended these nighttime community meetings for months. He stays late, until everyone has a chance to speak.

“I’m here to support the community in any way I can,” he said. “We are the local government for the people who live here. And those people don’t always speak English. We need to meet people where they are.”

Look at the presentation in Spanish here: