Where more than whistles fill the air

It’s 7 a.m. Wake up. Walk out. What’s that? You cover your face just to breathe something other than the diesel fumes that assault your nostrils like a cloud of rioting air molecules. Such are the disadvantages to living in a neighborhood bordered by a highway on one side, and a locomotive switching yard on the other.

West Eugene’s Trainsong Neighborhood is that neighborhood. It’s low rent — and relative lack of people who will stand up for their rights — makes it the ideal place for industrial plants to make their home and spill their toxins into the air. Diesel fumes from idling locomotives every morning create the most obvious and palatable air pollution in the neighborhood, but a slew of other contributors mark this as one of the most heavily polluted areas in Eugene.

Beyond Toxics is a Eugene-based Oregon environmental activism organization that focuses on advocating for a chance at cleaner air and water for areas like Trainsong and the rest of West Eugene. By forming partnerships with neighborhoods and lobbying at executive meetings, Beyond Toxics hopes to initiate firmer pollution restrictions on big industry and bring the air pollution levels to the attention of citizens and decision makers alike.

Though air pollution persists in Eugene, the city is not without efforts at solving the problem. Eugene is the only reported city in the country to maintain its own Toxics Right-to-Know webpage, a model of a federal webpage that tracks industrial emissions and makes the data available to the public. On the Eugene site, the total output of toxic material just in the 97402 area code, which includes Trainsong, is listed as 8,920,510 pounds for 2011. Given that in 1999, the first year the data was made public in Eugene, the total output was 19,455,139 pounds, more than 10,000,000 pounds more than last year, it appears that some progress is being made.

This decrease in emissions is reflected in the levels of toxins released strictly into the air. Today that number is approximately 412,761 pounds, whereas in 1999 it was nearly twice as much at 801,252.

While these lower levels are good, they are not great in relation to other parts of Eugene. In fact, Beyond Toxics reports that 99 percent of all toxic emissions reported in Eugene come from West Eugene and neighborhoods like Trainsong. In a 2010 survey of over 330 homes in West Eugene, Beyond Toxics found that over 60 percent of participants could detect some sort of pollution in their air, 60 percent reported having some respiratory issues, and over 30 percent had asthma specifically, compared to the approximately 8 percent of Americans with asthma. Beyond Toxics thinks these statistics must be linked to the levels of toxic emissions in the area’s air.

The 97402 area code retains high emission levels compared to other wealthier and less industrial areas. The 97403 area code, for example, which includes the University of Oregon and mostly small businesses and residential areas, had an output total of 28,983 pounds in 1999. After a brief spike around 2001, the 97403 area code has apparently dropped emissions to a level that is low enough to not report, as there are no listings since 2004.

Beyond Toxics’ Outreach Coordinator, Alison Guzman, said of the Toxics Right-to-Know database, “these are the industries that are actually reporting, so there are a lot more industries in the 97402 zip code area.” She cites Seneca and States, both wood processing plants, as two major industries in the area that do not report to either the EPA or Toxics Right-to-Know. Trainsong residents list wood odor as a larger noticeable pollution in their air.

While reporting emissions and making that data available publicly is an important factor in achieving environmental justice, most people do not know to look for that sort of information. That is where Beyond Toxics comes in.

To “Promote environmental and social justice and public participation in decision-making concerning public and environmental health policies” is part of Beyond Toxics’ mission as stated on its website. In April 2012, the organization coordinated a bus tour around West Eugene to show community members and decision makers first-hand the industries that pollute the air. Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy went along for the ride and was joined by County Commissioner Rob Handy and two city councilors, as well as a slew of other state environmental agents and residents of some of the affected neighborhoods.

Lisa Arkin, Executive Director of Beyond Toxics, wrote about her experience on the bus tour:

I felt one thing that became very clear during the bus tour is that Eugene is actually two different communities, two different worlds of experience. Many people on the bus had never seen the row of air and water polluters along Roosevelt Avenue (hidden behind trees and frontage buildings); and they had never considered what it must be like to raise a family less than one block from some of the nation’s most notorious polluters (e.g., JH Baxters).

Protecting these families and the people who do know the polluters and what it is like to live block, or even yards, away from them. This is the environmental justice aspect of Beyond Toxic’s work. Arkin, Guzman, and their counterpart John Jordan-Cascade work to educate and empower those who are forced by their lack of resources to live in areas that are environmentally unsafe to their health. They advocate for all who are denied their fundamental rights to clean air and water, and they bring their voices higher so that authorities can hear them.

While it is up to the people to make the change they want to see in their neighborhoods and lives, organizations like Beyond Toxics are here to give the people that power. “It really is about bringing the concerns of the people to major decision makers,” said Guzman to the Trainsong Neighborhood Association, who recently voted to partner with Beyond Toxics and continue working with them to stay on top of the pollution issue. If progress continues and organizations like Beyond Toxics continue to advocate, perhaps one day we truly will be beyond toxics.

Dirty air, clean streets

Where air pollution in West Eugene is a major issue generating concern from environmental justice groups, residents, and city officials alike, one of the more visually noticeable forms of pollution lacks a major presence in the Trainsong Neighborhood.

Trash litters many neighborhoods of Eugene, especially the West Campus Neighborhood. But Trainsong takes special care to keep its streets and few sidewalks clean. Aside from the clutter of old vehicles, downtrodden lawn ornaments, and busted household appliances that cover a number of lawns within the neighborhood, communal areas like Trainsong Park are kept spotlessly clean.

This comes from the initiative that Trainsong residents and members of the Trainsong Neighborhood Association take to do most everything they can to improve their neighborhood’s image. Parts of Trainsong are even being improved with the planting of a row of trees on Bethel Drive.

As a mark of pride and warning to would-be litterers, a sign near the train tracks declares Trainsong’s commitment to keeping the neighborhood clean. If only the big industries in the area had the same commitment to keeping the air clean, Trainsong and the rest of West Eugene might not have such a serious problem to deal with on top of eliminating litter.

A sign near the train tracks displays the neighborhood’s litter-free commitment.

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