A Misleading Beauty: Why Portland’s Air and Water Aren’t As Clean As We Thought

Willamette River (image from Ecopol Project

Willamette River (image from Ecopol Project)

I stand on the shores of the Willamette River, on sandy rocks that were underwater during the winter rains. The Scouler’s willows are full again. The salmonberries have deep pink flowers. The air smells like cottonwood pollen, a scent so inextricably tied to the river that I can’t smell one without thinking of the other.

I’ve known the river nearly all my life. When I was a child we played on its banks, sitting in the sun, climbing on the rock cliffs. One winter a thin sheet of ice formed on it, and we marveled at its fragility, how, in the pale light before sunset, spider web cracks already glistened along its edges. We dared only to tap the ice with our fingertips and ran, laughing, into the snow.  

It’s easy to look at the Willamette and see only beauty. There’s this bend in the river, this wide curve where the sun sets in the summer, its orange light covering the fir-tree hills in darkness. Whenever I see it like that, all the houses and highways shadowed by the falling sun, the great Willamette stretched out, quietly shifting from blue to black, I think, this must be what Lewis and Clark saw. It still seems an ancient scene. It still seems a wild river. But, when the sun rises, there again are the riverfront mansions, and the factories along the falls. And, even more troubling, there again is the pollution. 

Like many rivers—and, as we’re discovering, many skies—in the Pacific Northwest, the Willamette’s looks are misleading. As a child, my parents discouraged me from swimming in the Willamette. It was common knowledge that it was dirty, polluted with run-off from streets and farms, and long-ago tainted by the paper mills that sit abandoned near the falls. The closer to the river’s apex at the Columbia, the more industrial processes—factories, mills, shipping vessels—resulting in dirtier water. We heard stories about two-headed mutant fish, and some said that chemicals in the water could cause cancer. 

When I look at the Willamette I can’t help but feel a deep sadness. This should be the river I grew up in, not just around. This should be the river I dove in to, swimming up toward the sunlight, unafraid to open my eyes underwater. 

The Willamette will not be clean again in my lifetime. It will take a century or so to filter out, even if we stopped all pollution at its source this very moment. There are fewer and fewer clean bodies of water left in the world, and clean air is becoming scarce as well. 

Skies above Portland appear free from smog or haze, except for our beloved fog. In the summer, skies are perfectly blue, except for on certain occasions when the mountains look pale with heat, or when there’s smoke from wildfires. But, just like the river, our beautiful skies are deceiving

Bullseye Glass Co.

Bullseye Glass Co.

In February 2016, officials announced that the air around the Bullseye glass factory in southeast Portland contained dangerously high levels of arsenic and cadmium. More than 59 times the safe limit of cadmium and 149 times the safe limit of arsenic were directly contaminating backyard gardens, a city park, and even two nearby schools—Cleveland High School and Winterhaven Elementary. These chemicals are known to be especially dangerous for children, causing cancer, neurological disorders, and kidney damage.

Further findings revealed that the air around Uroboros, a glass factory in north Portland, contained similarly high levels of cadmium, as well as hexavalent chromium, which is a known carcinogen. These levels are so dangerous that one in every 4,807 people exposed to them would get cancer, rather than the one in a million goal that the state has set as its goal. A recent study by the Oregon Health Authority found an unusually high occurrence of bladder cancer among those who lived near Uroboros Glass from 1999 to 2003. This is particularly concerning given that Uroboros is just down the street from the old Harriet Tubman School—a building currently serving as a temporary school for Faubion Elementary students.

The soil around both these areas is unsafe to grow vegetables in, and unsafe to play in. Even if the pollution was stopped now, the soil would still be dangerous.

There are pollution control devices that can prevent almost all of these chemicals from being released into the atmosphere. Both companies have now agreed to install these systems. But why didn’t they do so earlier? How was this allowed to happen? The Clean Air Act doesn’t regulate chemicals like cadmium or arsenic, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has been far too lenient—essentially, these glass companies are allowed to emit whatever they want as long as they stay under 10-25 tons per year. 

We rely on regulatory agencies like the EPA and the DEQ to keep us safe. And when they aren’t doing their job, we don’t find out until it’s too late—until our waters and soils are polluted for lifetimes to come—until our bodies are broken by cancer. We can’t see these chemicals, so we place our trust in the scientists who can. 

The negligence of protective agencies has become an epidemic. Flint, Michigan is a perfect example. When the city started drawing their water from the Flint River in 2014, the state regulator chose to be thrifty and not treat the water with chemicals that would prevent it from corroding lead pipes. Treatment would only have cost $100 per day, and it would have saved 4.9% of Flint’s children, who were poisoned by that lead. Eventually the water became discolored, spouting brown from faucets, and after a year of telling citizens to drink it anyway, Governor Rick Snyder finally addressed the issue. 

Over 30% of U.S. water systems still use lead pipes, including Portland, whose lead levels exceed federal standards. According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, chemicals are to be used to make the water less corrosive rather than replacing the lead pipes—but there’s always a chance that lead is still making its way into the water supply. Saving money and time is considered more important than environmental safety. 

This is also true of personal-use products—soaps, lotions, make-up, etc.—which suffer from a lack of regulation. Detergent manufacturers, for example, aren’t even required to list their ingredients because it might be a ‘trade secret’. Consumers expect that the government will prohibit potentially dangerous chemicals from entering stores, but the truth is, very little is regulated at all. 

Even jewelry, something one would presume to be safe, is sometimes made with dangerous materials. In one instance, necklaces sold in the girl’s department at JC Penny contained an astonishing 98 percent cadmium, and 5 percent lead. 

We didn’t ask for a world of chemicals. Corporations and governing bodies are forcing them on us, without even the decency of keeping them at a healthy level. Our nation’s children are at risk absolutely everywhere; on the playground, where they breathe toxic dust; at home, where they drink water laced with lead; at a birthday party, where they wear glittery jewelry weighed down by cadmium. 

Here in Portland it’s not only the glass factories. According to a study by the EPA, Portland’s air in general has the capacity to cause cancer in twice the number of people than the national average. Factories along the banks of the Willamette and Columbia have not only polluted the water, but the wind; our air is full of volatile compounds, heavy metals, and toxic dusts. Nineteen chemicals found in Portland’s air exceed the safe limits set by the EPA. Our air is worse than 63 percent of the country’s. The Willamette contains two superfund sites; the Columbia, three. 

There’s never been a better time to address this issue; as climate change progresses and water becomes scarcer, we need to be especially diligent in ensuring that the water sources we do have remain clean. And, as the population continues to grow and more people condense into cities, we need to ensure that we can breathe clean, healthy air, and grow vegetables in our own backyard gardens without worrying about heavy metals in the soil. 

That’s the thing about pollution, and chemicals, and toxics, and greenhouse gases. Once they’re in the environment they’re hard to get rid of. It’s the sort of thing you have to stop at the source. You have to see it coming, and you have to prevent it from getting bad. This is our time to hold regulatory agencies like the EPA and DEQ responsible for being diligent, cautious, and open with their findings. 

And, for those things that we didn’t see coming, or didn’t take action on, there’s still hope. Because, even as I stand on the banks of the great Willamette River, and look upon it with that same sadness, I know that there’s still something to fight for—even if we don’t see a complete clean-up in our lifetime, we can still save the river for those who come after us.

Written by local author Francesca Varela