Equity, Environmental Justice, and Industrial Pollution in Portland

by: Posted on: October 14, 2012

Photo: Eline Leemans

By Andrew Riley and Eline Leemans, Center for Intercultural Organizing, Portland, OR

Editor’s Note: If we want to understand environmental threats, we’ve got to listen to the people who live with their consequences. Read on to learn about Portland’s current and historic legacy of environmental inequity.


It is fair to say that the concentration of industry in any major city is far from equitable. Industrial pollution disproportionately impacts low-income communities, especially people of color, and immigrant and refugee populations; the voices of communities impacted by industry and development are often left out of the debate. Portland, Oregon, although touted as one of the USA’s “greenest” cities, currently struggles with its own legacy of inequitable industrial contamination, perpetuated by a set of land use policies that continue to marginalize underserved communities. Low-income areas are situated in industrial areas and bear the brunt of high emissions and the environmental consequences of new infrastructure projects. In addition, affordable (that is, low-income) housing is concentrated along industrial corridors in North, Northeast, and Southeast Portland by both the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the local housing authority. This is exacerbated by the region’s strictly-controlled Urban Growth Boundary (UGB); although successful at preventing urban sprawl, the Portland-area UGB has the effect of limiting further urban development, and thus skewing housing prices in neighborhoods close to the city center and other major economic centers. The major industrial areas in the city include the Northwest Industrial District along US Route 30, the Swan Island shipyards, as well as the Columbia Corridor in North Portland.

To understand the inequities surrounding environmental contamination in Portland, a short detour through the city’s history is needed. In industrial North Portland, many concerns are linked back to Vanport, Oregon, an intentional community designed to house migrant workers employed at the Kaiser shipyards during and shortly after World War II. The largest federal housing project in the country at that time, it was also Oregon’s largest desegregated community, home to over 10,000 people of color. After a flood in 1948, Vanport’s residents of color moved south, into the Albina area of North Portland. The displacement of families of color caused a secondary flight of Albina’s white residents who were uncomfortable with the demographic shifts in their neighborhood.[1]

Such instances of discrimination and inequality caused by environmental factors continue to plague Portland’s communities of color, immigrants, and refugees. Currently, the city is a partner in the Columbia River Crossing Project (the “CRC”), directed at building a new Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Washington. In reality, the plan is to build two new bridges (one, coincidentally, originating in the former Vanport area, now known as Delta Park), which converge on Hayden Island, home to the state’s largest manufactured home community (what might be more commonly referred to as a “mobile home park”), comprised of primarily low-income residents, people of color, immigrants, and refugees.

The CRC’s construction staging area – designed primarily to store materials and equipment, and prepare them for construction – will be located right next to the manufactured home community, literally touching their fences.[2] Dust, debris, and exhaust from the construction of the bridge are likely to have extremely negative impacts on residents’ health. Adding to the challenges for residents, the construction of the new bridge will require the demolition of the island’s only full-service grocery store and pharmacy; residents will be forced to venture north into Vancouver or south into Portland for food and medications. Though the improvement of infrastructure is important for cities, impact on inhabitants who live near improvements tends to be harmful and destructive to individual physical and psychological wellbeing.

Turning from the project-based CRC to a standing industrial area, it’s worth briefly discussing the Columbia Corridor, Oregon’s single largest industrial area. It is the site of Portland International Airport, as well as most of the city’s remaining industrial land; occupants range from cargo hauling companies to the region’s wastewater treatment plants. Most notably, the Corridor abuts residential neighborhoods (in many cases, low-income housing stock including federal developments) through North and Northeast Portland, as well as the cities of Fairview, Wood Village, and Troutdale. One need only walk through North Portland in the early evening to understand how much of an impact industry in this area has had on surrounding neighborhoods: the smell of raw sewage begins to fill the air around 6pm, and continues for several hours. Industry in the Corridor has exposed nearby residents to toxins, at least in part due to water contamination of the Columbia Slough (including dumped sewage, de-icing fluid runoff from Portland International Airport, and pesticides).[3]

There is a disconnection between mainstream environmental organizations and community-based groups that focus on issues impacting marginalized communities, posing a challenge for comprehensively analyzing the full impact of industrial toxins. Although groups such as OPAL Environmental Justice certainly do straddle both worlds, by and large advocacy around environmental issues – both organizational and governmental – lacks an explicit focus on equity and environmental justice. With regard to the CRC example, it is notable that manufactured home owners have been systematically excluded from conversations around the CRC project. In order to combat environmental injustice, minorities must be given a voice. Programs must be established that provide education and assistance to communities in need, in order to empower these groups that have been strategically left out time and again.

Addressing the disproportionate impact of environmental toxins on marginalized communities is far from an easy problem to solve; the first step, however, is plain: including communities’ voices at every step. The most basic principles of environmental justice and, indeed, human rights more broadly demand that impacted communities have a voice in policy and planning decisions. This is especially true when those policies and plans expose communities to environmental toxins.

As the CRC project develops, for instance, Hayden Island’s manufactured home community needs to have substantive input into the nature and development of the construction. Similarly, groups representing industrial areas such as the Columbia Corridor should take deliberate steps toward engaging the communities around them (businesses in the Corridor have organized internal association with no representation from the surrounding residential neighborhoods). Although organizations such as the Center for Intercultural Organizing or OPAL Environmental Justice may engage our constituencies on issues involving the local consequences of industry, a systematic network of relationships needs to be built between stakeholders of industrial projects.

[1] Michael McGregor, “The Vanport Flood and Racial Change in Portland,” Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society, http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/learning_center/dspresource.cfm?resource_ID=000BC26B-EE5A-1E47-AE5A80B05272FE9F (accessed 17 Aug. 2012).

[2] Jeff Manning, “At Hayden Island interchange, the Columbia River Crossing will cast a huge footprint,” The Oregonian, 24 Sept. 2011, http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2011/09/at_hayden_island_interchange_t.html (accessed 17 Aug. 2012).

[3] Ellen Stroud, “Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon,” Radical History Review1999, number 74 (1999), 65.

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