Taking Responsibility for Justice

Eugene, nationally recognized as a bike city, a community near nature and a place where we value sustainability, would not normally attract attention around environmental human rights and justice issues. Which is why for one day, Beyond Toxics and Centro LatinoAmericano invited city and agency officials, students and community leaders on an environmental justice bus tour to West Eugene where we got the opportunity to see how families live through the lens of “environmental justice”.

To achieve justice, we need to help major decision makers in our community face some of the injustices that unfortunately exists so uncomfortably close to home. To achieve justice, we need to challenge the current structures in place so that other people and certain communities also gain access to political attention and social resources that may not normally be readily available.  Unveiling the hidden discomforts that exists in our society, forces both believers and nonbelievers of environmental injustices to take a second look and determine the action needed.

The truth is that communities, specifically low-income communities, live in areas that are in critical need of public health improvements due to their disproportionate exposures to toxics such as polluted air and contaminated ground water. If we don’t watch out for the health of our children AND acknowledge that communities are disproportionately affected by poverty, then who will? Let us continue to move forward and not resign ourselves to stagnancy and a calcified system- regardless of the privileges you have access to.

As Winona LaDuke put it, “Take responsibility for history. Recognize that sometimes things take a long time to change.” So, what is the lesson for us in Eugene? Don’t be weary of fighting for what is just in Eugene. You never know how many lives you may save or change by your actions in the long run.

Exposures to Air Pollution in Medford, Oregon

Executive Director Lisa Arkin and I made the three hour drive to Medford, Oregon to give an Asthma Care Workshop. A long trip for us, but well worth it. Last summer, UNETE, a farmworkers’ advocacy organization, invited us to collaborate with them in doing a workshop (see our pictures from the workshop) for the people they serve. Perfect, we thought, since they work a lot with timber and agricultural farmworkers and therefore are heavily exposed to herbicides and pesticides. In fact, many of the participants who attended may have worked for the local herbicide manufacture or timber companies. UNETE provides support to Latinos in the Medford community, including education, legal support, labor rights, etc. In fact, UNETE is the only Latino-led non-profit in the Rogue Valley.

As I gave my Asthma presentation, I saw the participants’ facial expressions change when I mentioned a startling statistic. According to a recent USA Today Report, some schools in Medford ranked in the 2nd percentile in the Nation for poor air quality. Rankings are based on modeled concentration and severity of chemicals known or believed to cause cancer. According to the report, this ranking means that there is a “greater likelihood that toxic chemicals could be present at levels that could threaten children’s health.” For example, if you see a school whose overall toxicity shows up in the second percentile, you’ll know only 1% of the nation’s schools had higher toxicity levels.

I could see expressions of concern, curiosity, disbelief, and concern, cross the faces of the people who came to listen. In the midst of delivering the bad news, I knew I was doing my part by empowering citizens to take action in their own lives to improve the air they breathe. In doing so, individuals end up feeling better about their lives and the health of their families.

Though our presentation was billed as an “Asthma Care Workshop”, much of the information shared could have easily applied to anyone. The people who came had a lot of great questions: Do pesticides cause cancer? How will I know if my husband has asthma if I’ve never taken him to the doctor? Why are children more affected by air toxics than adults?  I later found out that most of these parents had children with disabilities. ‘No wonder they looked so worried,’ I thought. Yet, the feeling of empowerment and content was spread throughout as they learned about tips, guidelines, and tools to reduce their families’ exposures to indoor and outdoor air toxics.

Exposures to air toxins can lead to general respiratory illnesses and/or discomforts. In Medford’s Crossroads School alone, for example, at 97% of overall toxicity, the top polluting chemical is formaldehyde.  As the report indicates, “this is the overall toxicity measure, but includes only those chemicals known or thought to cause cancer.” Not only cancer, but also asthma.

Have you heard that saying, “Knowledge is power”? Well, this was especially true in this case. UNETE and Beyond Toxics are looking forward to tackling environmental health issues together for these and other concerned parents.

But I’ll save those details for my next blog…

The Human Tongue As An Air Monitoring Station

It sure is lucky for the owners of Seneca Biomass that our tongue can’t collect toxic emission data admissible in a court of law. If there was a monitor as sensitive as the human tongue–or as sensitive as the lungs of an asthmatic child, we wouldn’t have any trouble proving the case that their biomass plant in West Eugene is fouling our air.

The Register-Guard reported in September that Seneca Biomass had “flunked” a part of its initial pollution control test related to particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. That is a fact I witnessed myself yesterday!

I drove a family friend to the Eugene airport on Monday afternoon. Everyone going to the airport has to drive right past Seneca. It’s not much of a Eugene-welcome. The stacks were spewing out dark, thick emissions. My friend was shocked! She has always thought of Eugene as such a green-friendly town. When I drove back towards the plant, the same heavy emissions were pouring forth into what would have been a perfect bright blue Lane County sky. That means the plant was polluting at an intense level for at least thirty minutes from the time I first saw it until I snapped pictures on my cell phone on my way home.

Seneca biomass power generation plant

What a contrast to the claim made by Merlyn Hough, the director of the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency! In response to the news that Seneca Biomass had flunked its first air pollution test, he said to a Register-Guard reporter, “There hasn’t been concerns about visual emissions; in fact, it appears to the person driving by as a very clean operation.”

I’ve taken several photographs on at least three trips nearby, and each photograph shows considerable air pollution from Seneca. This time I could really taste sooty air on my tongue and the smell had a sickly quality. The memory of it stayed with me for hours.

These foul emissions happen on a regular basis. Is it any wonder that Seneca failed their air pollution tests? It is outrageous that they are allowed to poison our air when the rest of us are being asked by LRAPA not to burn wood to keep warm and to reduce driving because of air inversions.

We should be asking LRAPA, the agency charged with protecting our air, several important questions:

1. Why isn’t Seneca required to stop polluting our air if they are violating their air toxics permit and we can clearly see their opaque emissions?

Beyond Toxics warned about excessive particulate matter and nitrogen oxides in our challenge to the permit – not only did LRAPA pay no heed, they built pollution-friendly loopholes into the permit.

2. Is LRAPA fining Seneca as they continue to pollute our air while they “figure out” their air pollution problem?

They should be fined each and every day, and that money should not go to LRAPA, but instead it should go to the downwind community so that we can afford to do our own air testing.

Seneca biomass plant - April 30, 2011

Our local air can be very unhealthy in the winter. Inversions often cause particulate matter to thicken for days on end. Let’s not forget the medical precautions: exposure to fine particulate matter, the kind that Seneca is belching (in excess!), shortens lives and is known to cause heart disease and asthma. The children in the neighborhood just downwind of the biomass plant are suffering from asthma at a high rate, much higher than national averages.

Let’s face it: Seneca’s profits are coming at the expense of our children’s lungs. And that’s definitely not OK with me.


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