Blowing Smoke

(Ian Enger/Emerald)

West Eugene resident Arjorie Arberry-Baribeault’s daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in late 2018. Her close friend’s son, also living in West Eugene, was diagnosed with the same illness shortly after. With no prior history of cancer in her family, Arberry-Baribeault became suspicious.

“When I looked into what was going on in West Eugene, I hadn’t gone to school for environmental justice. I am just a mom who cares,” Arberry-Baribeault, a community organizer at Beyond Toxics, said. “When I was raising my children in West Eugene, I was naive to the smells and the smoke. I never really thought about it. After my daughter and friend’s son got sick, I started posting all over my social media to get the attention that I wanted, and it brought me to Beyond Toxics.”

Beyond Toxics stands at the forefront of the fight against air pollution. For the past 20 years, the organization has worked to improve state and local air quality policies and collaborate with diverse communities on environmental campaigns, according to Arberry-Baribeault. One of its largest campaigns is the Air Quality Campaign, created to raise awareness and work toward cleaner air in West Eugene.

According to the Eugene Toxics Right-to-Know program, 96% of all toxic air emissions in 2019 were released into West Eugene. This amounts to 684,159 pounds of toxic chemicals, roughly the equivalent size of the cargo ship that blocked the Suez Canal in March. This is not a surprising statistic for a good portion of the community of West Eugene. Residents are familiar with the thick smoke that rises from surrounding industrial facilities and the foul smells that permeate the air.

The community in West Eugene, home to an industrial corridor made up of 35 manufacturing companies, is disproportionately exposed to air pollution and has a higher percentage of low-income and minority residents. There are also higher rates of illnesses –– like asthma or cancer –– than any other area of Eugene. According to the Toxics Report for the City of Eugene, a West Eugene community member is exposed to an average of over 3,000 pounds of harmful toxins every day of the year. Other areas of Eugene are exposed to only two pounds of air toxins every day.

Toxic air emissions in West Eugene can be “overwhelming and frustrating to community members who have seen the negative effects taking hold for years now,” Arberry-Baribeault said. “However, positive change is taking place.”

In 2019, Lane County adopted Cleaner Air Oregon, an initiative created by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to enforce higher standards on Oregon’s industrial toxic emissions. Cleaner Air Oregon looks at the number of toxic emissions coming out of industrial facilities, the concentration of those emissions and the health risk to people who live, work and play near the industry. It regulates facilities based on potential health risks to community members.

“One of the things that Cleaner Air Oregon emphasizes is bringing community members into the air permitting process,” Travis Knudsen, Lane Regional Air Protection Agency public affairs manager, said. “It’s a good path forward to address community concerns about the health consequences of toxic air pollution.”

Arberry-Baribeault sees Cleaner Air Oregon as a “push for low-income communities all over Oregon.'' The program has created trust between the West Eugene community and government agencies like LRAPA and The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Arberry-Baribeault said.

“My hope and my aspiration are that the entire industrial corridor in West Eugene will be held accountable for the lives that they are destroying,” Arberry-Baribeault said. “It's not just about those who have gotten sick or have died. It is about the whole community. Those who are not able to go outside or eat the food in their garden because the air is filled with toxins.”

Holding facilities in West Eugene responsible for the harmful pollution they produce requires community involvement, Knudsen and Arberry-Baribeault said.

Knudsen said that complaints from the community are an effective method that guides LRAPA in their investigations of facilities. Community complaints received by LRAPA have backed investigations and fenceline monitoring, and also help LRAPA figure out where emissions are formulating and how people might be exposed to it.

“We encourage the community to participate in our community meetings as an opportunity where they can ask questions and voice concerns about the air quality in their neighborhood,'' Knudsen said. “If we host a community meeting and we don't have a lot of information, that limits how we can include the community in our process when we issue permits.”

LRAPA hosts meetings to discuss topics with community members who are concerned about the air quality in their neighborhoods. Meetings will be held via Zoom with LRAPA, focusing on specific industrial facilities in West Eugene. This will allow for community members who have specific complaints to raise those concerns with LRAPA. Community members can stay informed about upcoming meetings and facilities near them through the LRAPA "notify me" webpage.

Along with community complaints and meetings through LRAPA, concerned residents can send complaints to the DEQ, share their stories with Beyond Toxics and write letters to Congress members.

“There are always going to be limitations for certain things, but I feel that the community's involvement is limitless,” Arberry-Baribeault said. “One person saying something can cause a little ripple in the water, but if a whole community does something and says something about it, that makes waves. Because a room full of mamas causes problems and makes solutions happen.”