Portlanders Demand Action Against Diesel Pollution

The Union Pacific’s Brooklyn Railyard in Southeast Portland is a significant source of diesel pollution.

The Union Pacific’s Brooklyn Railyard in Southeast Portland is a significant source of diesel pollution.


The air throughout Portland is thick with diesel pollution. Doctors say cleaning it up would benefit the health of everyone in the city. And yet, at every level of government little is being done.


Diesel pollution doesn’t discriminate. It’s bad everywhere in Portland. People who live or work in each of Portland’s neighborhoods are exposed to a level of diesel pollution that the US Environmental Protection Agency considers dangerous.

While all diesel engines pollute the air, diesel engines found in older trucks, trains, tractors, construction sites, buses and cars are poisoning the air far more than newer ones. “Old clunkers” emit far more diesel soot containing extremely tiny particles that drive deeply into lung cells, causing cancer and a wide variety of other ailments.

Scientists say the smaller the particle, the greater the danger to health. Particles as small as 0.1 micrometers — about 1/500 the size of a strand of hair — pose the greatest hazard.

A public outcry against diesel pollution is gaining momentum in Portland. Two neighborhood town hall meetings since March have built public support for solutions. The most recent town hall held Sept. 26 in the Brooklyn neighborhood brought together about 100 residents and legislators, policy makers, and physicians concerned about the high levels of diesel pollution in the city.

“The more we learn about diesel pollution,
the worse it looks. There is no level of
diesel particulate pollution that isn’t harmful.”
— Dr. Patrick O’Herron, board president of
Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility

The Oregon Legislature has refused to address the problem. In 2017, it gutted a bill that would have replaced old diesel engines with newer engines that run about 95 to 99 percent cleaner. The bill would have delivered as much as $17 in health benefits for every clean-up dollar invested, according to the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (OPSR).

Dr. Patrick O’Herron, president of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. Photo by Jessica Applegate

“We have the technology we need, we have the resources, we live in the richest country in the world, there are things we can do,” Dr. Patrick O’Herron, OPSR board president, said at the Brooklyn town hall meeting,

“The more we learn about diesel pollution, the worse it looks,” he said. “There is no level of diesel particulate pollution that isn’t harmful.”

The developing minds and bodies of children are highly vulnerable to the damaging health effects of diesel pollution, and yet society intentionally puts them in harm’s way.

“A child riding a school bus is being exposed to 46 times the cancer risk considered safe by the EPA,” Dr. O’Herron said.

Another physician who spoke at the Brooklyn event, Dr. Erika Moseson, a Portland specialist in pulmonary disease, said whatever gets into your lungs will get into your blood.

“You wouldn’t inject diesel exhaust in your veins, and you don’t want to breathe it,” she said.

In California, a serious effort to reduce small particulates and soot from diesel engines led to improved lung function in children, according to a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Kids’ lungs started to grow again,” Dr. Moseson said. “They all had stunted lungs, and they started to get bigger and bigger and bigger. And when you’ve got a kid that’s able to grow lungs to a full size, that’s a kid that doesn’t get asthma, has lifelong health and lives longer.”

Similarly, a program in Washington to clean up diesel exhaust from school buses led to fewer missed school days, she said.

The next session of the Oregon Legislature will see another effort to enact diesel legislation, according to Sen. Michael Dembrow, chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

“There will definitely be legislation to move this issue forward,” said Dembrow, who spoke at a town hall meeting in March in the Slabtown neighborhood in Northwest Portland. “We’re currently working on reconciling House and Senate approaches. I don’t want to say much until we’ve done that.” He expects to know more in a month.

Other leaders who spoke at the two town halls included state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, Rep. Rob Nosse, Multnomah County Commissioners Deborah Kafoury and Sharon Meierson, Metro Councilors Lynn Peterson, Sam Chase and Bob Stacey, JoAnn Hardesty, a candidate for Portland City Council, Jackie Dingfelder, co-chair of a Cleaner Air Oregon advisory task force, Portland State University professor Dr. Linda George, Melissa Powers of the Green Energy Institute, and Mark Rieskedahl, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, a legal advocacy group.

Portland Clean Air, a local advocacy group, has provided technical assistance to many local organizations working to clean up the region’s diesel pollution.

Computer modeling shows that diesel pollution is a widespread problem throughout Portland, according to this DEQ map.

Dense diesel cloud hovers over Portland

The map at right published by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) shows where the air is most contaminated with diesel pollution. The greatest hazard can be found from the Willamette River to Forest Grove and along the south shore of the Columbia River from Hayden Island to Troutdale, with a significant spike at the Portland airport.

Between 40,000 and 60,000 diesel trucks travel Portland’s roads each day, causing significant amounts of diesel pollution. Studies show that historically, people of color and low-income neighborhoods have been disproportionately harmed by pollution from these vehicles.

Throughout most of this area, diesel pollution measures at least 10 times greater than the cancer benchmark for diesel.

The map also shows that diesel pollution poses a somewhat smaller -- but still significant -- health threat in all other parts of Portland. These health risks are compounded by the often poorly controlled toxic emissions from industrial sources and wood smoke.

“Oregonians have an increased risk for health effects from diesel emissions at present levels of exposure in everyday life,” the DEQ says on its web site.

Diesel engines emit soot created during the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel. This pollution contains hundreds of chemicals, including sulfates, ammonium, nitrates, elemental carbon, condensed organic compounds, as well as carcinogenic metals such as arsenic, selenium, cadmium and zinc. Ultrafine particles -- small enough to penetrate lungs – make up almost all diesel soot pollution and pose the deadliest threat, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Nationwide, tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year from particulate pollution. Occupational health studies of railroad, dock, trucking, and bus garage workers exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust over many years consistently demonstrate a 20 to 50 percent increase in the risk of lung cancer or mortality, according to an EPA health assessment.

Many community groups and leaders say government action is needed immediately to stem diesel pollution, yet DEQ is proposing no new actions, such as Cleaner Air Oregon, a program to reduce industrial pollution. Cleaner Air Oregon will regulate industry’s toxic air pollution based on health impacts, but it completely ignores health threats posed by diesel.

“DEQ does not currently have any new
proposals targeting diesel emissions, but
there are a number of programs currently
underway focused on reducing emissions.”
— DEQ spokesman Donald Oliveira.

“DEQ does not currently have any new proposals targeting diesel emissions, but there are a number of programs currently underway focused on reducing emissions,” said DEQ spokesman Donald Oliveira.

For example, he said, the DEQ announced in January that it will receive $72.9 million from a lawsuit settlement with Volkswagen to retrofit or replace 450 diesel school buses throughout the state. The EPA had sued Volkswagen for manipulating data on diesel exhaust. This was Oregon’s share in a settlement of that suit.

In addition, in May EPA awarded a $466,276 grant to a partnership involving DEQ, Portland State University, local government agencies and several community groups (including Breathe Oregon and Neighbors for Clean Air) to identify Portland areas most vulnerable to diesel pollution.

Meanwhile, Multnomah County, the city of Portland and TriMet are proposing their own measures to combat diesel pollution. But Portlanders should not hold their breath while they wait for them to result in clean air. The Portland City Council is scheduled to vote on Dec. 13 on its measure which would require contractors to use cleaner diesel engines on city-funded projects in the future. The county plans action on a similar measure. TriMet recently announced it will retire all 658 diesel buses in its fleet by 2040.

Residents resort to monitoring their own air

A computer model shows that diesel pollution near the Brooklyn Railyard in Southeast Portland poses a cancer risk of up to 10 times the level considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

DEQ says diesel pollution is heaviest along congested roadways and railroads and near construction sites. In the east side neighborhoods of Albina and Brooklyn, high concentrations of diesel pollution have been found near rail terminals operated by Union Pacific.

According to the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment released in December 2015, Multnomah County ranked in the worst 1% of US counties for airborne diesel particulate nationwide.

Last week, DEQ released a map showing diesel pollution levels near the Brooklyn railyard. It shows air in areas west and south is twice as dangerous as areas north and east of the railyard — an indication that wind direction plays a major role in determining who suffers most from diesel.

The data are based largely on computer modeling. “Almost certainly, the modeling underestimates actual exposures,” Dr. O'Herron said.

Without computer modeling, however, people would know little about what’s in their air. Until this year, the DEQ deployed only one permanent air monitor in Southeast Portland capable of measuring air toxics and particulates.

Some residents are deploying do-it-yourself particle pollution monitors rather than rely on the DEQ for data. Portlander Christopher Eykamp invented a makeshift monitoring machine that measures pollution at the doorstep. The device reports particulate data every 30 seconds, which it can send via wi-fi to a nearby laptop computer.

Chris Eykamp demonstrates his birdhouse monitor. Photo by Jessica Applegate

“When they're calibrated against DEQ's monitors, they track quite closely, so I believe they can provide accurate data,” he says.

“For me, the primary goal is to get people thinking about air, and to build a sense of ownership for a ‘common’ good that no one seems responsible for,” Eykamp says. “If people start taking a more active interest in the air, showing off the monitor they built to their friends, they may feel more responsible for air quality, and that could lead them to take action. Seen in that light, the monitors are more a political tool than a scientific one, even if they are producing valid data as a byproduct.”

Students at Bridges Middle School in Portland assemble air monitors in bottles. Photo by Beven Byrnes

Eykamp’s monitors, called the Sensorbot, can be assembled by anyone from parts available online that cost about $37.

Wes Ward, a retiree who lives a few blocks from the Brooklyn railyard, installed one of Eykamp’s birdhouse monitors on his front porch. He says the monitor produces data that “quite closely” tracks data generated by a DEQ monitor on Southeast Lafayette Street and 54th Avenue.

“I am very concerned about health impacts if we continue to experience particulates of many times the Oregon health benchmark,” Ward says. “From the information I’ve heard and read, it is the long-term exposure to particulates even at low levels that causes bad health effects.”

Even schoolkids are building air monitors. At Bridges Middle School, an independent nonprofit school in downtown Portland, students in an environmental justice class have been assembling particulate monitors in bottles. Principal Beven Byrnes plans to place 10 of them around the school.

In about six weeks, the students will collect the data and send it to regulatory agencies, elected officials and media outlets.

“We will become change agents,” Byrnes says. “Clean air warriors!”


Find your legislator. Demand passage of strong legislation curbing diesel pollution.

Tell your local government to require the use of low-emission diesel equipment at clean construction sites, if they must use diesel at all.

Tell the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission to require inspections of emissions for diesel trucks.

Paul Koberstein is editor of Cascadia Times. Jessica Applegate is managing editor.

Paul Koberstein