BREATHE Oregon takes aim at diesel pollution
Author: Christina Williams
Posted: May 9, 2018
When toxic heavy metals were detected in the air around Bullseye Glass in Southeast Portland in 2016, there was a flurry of media attention and activity, focusing citizen attention on air quality.

But while toxic metals are indeed a threat to health, they are much easier to deal with than a much more pervasive air quality issue: diesel pollution.

“Metals pollution can be cleaned up by putting the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner bag on the emissions source,” says Linda George, the Portland State University atmospheric chemist, who has become the face of air pollution research in Portland. “But diesel is the biggest source of air toxics health risk in Portland — we think. But there is no inventory of diesel pollution sources, they are not tracked.”

Bolstered by a new $466,276 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, George and her colleagues in the university-community collaboration known as BREATHE Oregon will work to better understand what diesel emissions look like in the Portland region, create maps of the most affected neighborhoods, and arm community activists with information about what’s in their air.

A collaboration between higher education and grassroots organizations, BREATHE Oregon started in 2017 with the aid of a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust. Partners include the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS), the Lewis & Clark Law School’s Northwest Environmental Defense Center, and the nonprofit Neighbors for Clean Air.

George, Professor of Environmental Science and a Faculty Fellow of the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, spent much of BREATHE Oregon’s first year measuring metals-based air toxics but is now pivoting to focus on diesel.

Sources of diesel pollution are tough to monitor—trucks are mobile, constructions sites come and go, freight shipping is intermittent. George’s newest research project will focus on identifying the signature of different diesel sources and mapping those sources to determine which neighborhoods are most at risk for diesel-spiked air pollution. BREATHE Oregon partners Neighbors for Clean Air, OPAL, and Verde will then bring that information to community activists.

George says the project is unique and will be of interest to any port city looking to get a handle on diesel pollution. It’s also a timely focus for Oregon.

“California and Washington have strict rules about diesel emissions in effect that’s sending dirty diesel engines to Oregon,” George says. “If we’re not paying attention it’s going to get worse and not better.”

“Strong community advocacy is going to be the only driver of any change,” says Mary Peveto, president of Neighbors for Clean Air. “We’ve got to make sure the communities are engaged and equipped with the best information about risk and real solutions.”

After a year spent on research and putting together a toolkit for community engagement, BREATHE Oregon is rolling out three community events and a set of focus groups to begin the process of educating neighborhoods about air quality and arming them with the latest research.

The first BREATHE Oregon event, Deconstructing Diesel, took place in March and brought together citizens, elected officials, and researchers to address the issue of diesel pollution. (The session was recorded and the video is available online.) Additional events are planned for this summer and fall.

“We’re really starting to roll out the public engagement piece of BREATHE Oregon,” Peveto said. Neighbors for Clean Air is working with neighborhood groups that represent some of the lower income neighborhoods that are the most impacted by poor air quality, funneling money, research, and other resources to their existing efforts toward clean air. Partners include Verde, OPAL, and Green Lents.

“We’re there to help strengthen the advocacy work that they’re already doing,” Peveto said.

Vivek Shandas, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning and an ISS Faculty Fellow, led what he calls the “systems analysis” for BREATHE Oregon, researching local air quality management agencies across the country looking at how they are structured and how they apply regulatory and non-regulatory approaches.

Now Shandas and his team are looking at how communities across the country are inding innovative ways to address diesel pollution. They will develop an online platform to describe sources of diesel tools for engagement on the topic.

“Every community will have different ways of reducing their exposure,” Shandas said.

This summer, BREATHE Oregon will work with Brianne Suldovsky, Assistant Professor of Communications and ISS Faculty Fellow to help determine the best way to get scientific data into the hands of grassroots community organizers and city residents most likely to be affected by air pollution.

The PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, a platform for university-community collaboration, employs a project manager for BREATHE Oregon and has provided other forms of support. 

BREATHE Oregon was originally funded as a two-year project but Peveto said the partners are seeking funding to extend it further.

“It’s essential that this kind of smart and passionate community-based advocacy lives on,” she said.