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What’s that Smell in West Eugene? Beyond Toxics to Host Conversation about Air Pollution

Beyond Toxics

For the past year, Beyond Toxics has been canvassing neighborhoods in West Eugene and asking community members to fill out an environmental health survey. Now, the group is ready to share their preliminary results and hear from the community to see what can be done to improve air quality in West Eugene.

The West Eugene community meeting will be on Saturday, January 25, from 5pm to 7pm at the Peterson Barn Community Center.

By going door-to-door in areas such as Bethel and Trainsong, the group has approached over 250 homes. Beyond Toxics Environmental Justice Community Liaison Ana Molina said certain areas are a cancer cluster. People have reported a wide array of problems, which they claim is due to the chemicals released from neighboring factories. She said people have disclosed developing various cancers earlier than the average age for those health issues.

The organization has found that toxins from nearby factories are affecting people's quality of life. She said residents are closing their windows during warm summer nights because a really bad smell is entering their homes. Others have told them that they would like to walk outside more, but cannot because there are days when the smell is just too strong.

Beyond Toxics’ Executive Director Lisa Arkin said young mothers have confided that no one in their family has ever had asthma—until they moved to West Eugene.

“Children that they might've had in a different city didn't have asthma, but when they moved here with their family and maybe they had additional children—that the young children are getting asthma and they think that it's associated with living in an area where the air quality is not very good,” said Arkin.

The group thinks it takes a while for symptoms to show up in people, so pets tend to exhibit more symptoms. According to Arkin, they have heard stories about people's dogs—sometimes multiple dogs in one family—getting strange cancers. But Molina said many of the people that talk about their pets, do not think to attribute their symptoms to where they are living.

Molina said she hopes people will come out to hear the preliminary results, as well as provide a community space for people to hear from their neighbors and learn about the commonalities between their symptoms and health problems.

“Sometimes it's helpful when you hear that your neighbor is also experiencing the same thing and it's not just you,” said Molina. “And you're not the one who's going crazy thinking something's happening in your neighborhood.”

But it has not been easy collecting the results.

“One thing that I've noticed—and sometimes what I tell our volunteers—is that for every 10 houses you knock on, you will probably get one person who answers the door,” said Molina. “So it's a lot of door knocking a lot of the time.”

She said canvassers get mixed reviews. Some people are excited and want to get involved. But some don't want to talk to them or even answer their door.

“There's some people who just don't feel safe in the area because of whatever reasons,” said Molina. “So they're not as likely to open their door for a stranger.”

Canvassers provide the environmental health survey in both English and Spanish, as well as online. At any time, residents can complete the environmental health survey or use Beyond Toxics’ story collection form to anonymously submit their experiences about living in West Eugene. The group tries to work with community members to be as accommodating as possible.

“Some people really want to get the survey done—they want to give it back to us,” said Arkin. “Like maybe they're making dinner, so they'll fill it out and leave it on their doorstep for us and our canvassers will circle back and pick those up.”

Molina said they are trying to hear from a wide array of community members.

“I've definitely done surveys where somebody’s like working on their car and I'm like, ‘Well, I can also just read and ask you the questions and you can just respond back to me,’ said Molina. “And they're like, ‘Okay, I can do that.’

After living in an area for so long, some people do not notice the health side effects from living near factories and Molina believes some community members think their living conditions are normal. But others have made the connection. Molina claims many people have tried contacting organizations—such as the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency—to do something about the problem, and people have told her that many organizations have not done anything. She said many community members just want to be heard.

“Some people are like, ‘No, definitely. I've been living here for so many years and the air smells really bad,’” said Molina. People have also told her, “And up until I moved here, I didn't have any asthma symptoms. And all of a sudden I move here, and I have a runny nose, I can't breathe well.”

Beyond Toxics believes JH Baxter—a wood treatment plant—is a main contributor to the environmental pollution in the area. JH Baxter Plant Manager Jeanne Olson had the following email response to the accusations that health problems are being caused by the facility.

“JH Baxter and Company works diligently to operate in compliance with our LRAPA air permit,” said Olson. “We’ve also invested in many capital projects to improve air quality and reduce odors.”

In addition to air pollution, JH Baxter is also addressing land and water pollution concerns.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Public Affairs Specialist Dylan Darling said the DEQ has been working with JH Baxter since 1981 and JH Baxter has been treating their groundwater since 1993. According to Darling, groundwater contamination at Baxter came from previous operations that allowed wood treatment chemicals to drop onto the soil.

“The chemicals moved into the groundwater,” said Darling via email. “There is now a lined concrete pad beneath the wood treatment area that prevents chemicals from moving down into groundwater.”

Based off of the cleanup requirements of the DEQ record of decision, the facility must continue clean-up of remaining groundwater contamination through a pump-and-treat system and encapsulate the contaminated soil, which Darling stated will begin in the spring or summer when the weather is drier.

Currently, the DEQ is in the process of having Baxter sign a voluntary agreement to establish a schedule to carry out requirements in the record of decision.

Molina said Beyond Toxics is trying to make the informational meeting as accessible as possible. Beyond Toxics will provide food and a kid’s corner. People who attend and stay for the whole meeting will be entered into a raffle to win one of five Winnco gift cards. Arkin said giving back is a very important value for an environmental justice organization.

“We don't want to go into a community—take people's data, take their stories—and then just hold onto them ourselves. It's really important to share back, tell everyone what we've learned and make sure they have input into it, and find ways to get involved if they wish to do so.”

Beyond Toxics hopes to receive at least 400 surveys before fully analyzing the results of the collected data in order to see statistically significant patterns.

The West Eugene community meeting to discuss Beyond Toxics preliminary air pollution survey results, and hear resident’s stories, will be on Saturday, January 25, from 5pm to 7pm at the Peterson Barn Community Center.

Elizabeth Gabriel is a former KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She is an education reporter at WFYI in Indianapolis.
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