STORIES FROM THE FIELD: Public comment needed to protect children from air toxics

Western Sugar Company factory in Billings, Montana.

I wanted to share my story with you with the hope that it will inspire you to take action. I have lived in the Eugene area for over 15 years. My grandparents moved here in 1980 and bought a beautiful farm just outside of Cottage Grove. As an environmental justice organizer for Beyond Toxics I have great concerns about the air quality in our state and the effect it has on children.

I moved here because I thought Oregon was a clean, healthy state to raise my child. Eugene looks very green and sustainable compared to where I was born, Billings Montana. My father was a member of the Crow Tribe (and still is) and had a small house just outside the Crow reservation. This house was built by his father when nothing else was built in that area of town. Then, a sugar beet factory was built just a short distance away. I can still remember the horrid stench of the air. There were many days when the smell made me gag and run inside my house and close all the windows. It gave me headaches and nausea. I developed childhood asthma, which plagues me even today. My parents could not afford the expensive asthma medication. As a kid I experienced asthma attacks so severe I thought I would die. I would not wish this on any child, anywhere. As a young child I was so often left gasping for air, searching all over my house for an inhaler, hoping there would be a tiny bit more medicine left inside. I remember feeling hesitant to ask my parents to scrape together the money to pay for my asthma medicine, year after year. The feelings of guilt, shame and utter desperation haunt me still. As I got older, I learned about air pollution and further investigating air pollution specifically emitted by sugar beet factories. I learned that sugar beet factories, along with the foul stench, emit hydrogen sulfide. It is well documented that hydrogen sulfide has many human health risks, asthma among them.

This is the typical environmental justice story. A polluting industry moves into a minority community, dumps their toxins and manages to evade responsibility for the human suffering it causes. I am pretty sure that the sugar beet factory will never know the suffering they caused my family and me.

Far too often, polluting businesses use the threat of job loss as their reason not to invest in cleaner technology. They place a burden of guilt and fear on their employees, threatening their jobs if they are made to comply with new regulations. What about the burden placed on my family in Billings? What about the burden on West Eugene families? In West Eugene we have factories that emit toxic chemicals into the air that impact nearby neighborhoods. Childhood asthma in West Eugene is at 14%, nearly double the state average.
Please keep in mind that early exposure can lead to cascading harm over a life time. Children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of chemicals and deserve regulations that provide additional protection. There is already a precedent for lower thresholds to protect children in toxicology models. It is clear the science is here to back up the work Oregon’s regulatory agencies need to do. Now the question is a moral one.

If you would like to let our state government know about the importance of clean air to you, please use the DEQ online form. You can reference talking points created by Lisa Arkin to help craft your testimony. Deadline: Monday, August 6th at 4 PM.

Mysti Frost is the Environmental Justice Community Organizer for Beyond Toxics and has been elected to be a member of the board of the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.
This blog is a modification of the testimony submitted to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for their Cleaner Air Oregon program.

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