Toxic Air in West Eugene is a Problem. Here’s How to Help.

Photo of Arauco North factory in West Eugene, Oregon. (Beyond Toxics/Jake Jackson.)

By Victoria Ginzburg

EUGENE, Ore. — In September of 2018, West Eugene resident Arjorie Arberry-Baribeault’s daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Shortly after, her close friend’s son was also diagnosed with the same illness after living in West Eugene. With no prior history of cancer in her family, Arberry-Baribeault became suspicious.

“When I looked into what was going on in West Eugene, I hadn’t gone to school for environmental justice. I am just a mom who cares,” said Arberry-Baribeault, West Eugene Community Organizer at Beyond Toxics. “When I was raising my children in West Eugene, I was naive to the smells and the smoke. I never really thought about it. After my daughter and friend’s son got sick, I started posting all over my social media to get the attention that I wanted, and it brought me to Beyond Toxics.”

At the forefront of the fight for clean air is the organization Beyond Toxics. For the past 20 years, Beyond Toxics has been dedicated to solving environmental injustice in Oregon. Beyond Toxics works to improve state and local air quality policies, engage with a diverse community and implement environmental campaigns. One of their largest campaigns is the Air Quality Campaign, created to raise awareness and work towards cleaner air in West Eugene.

According to the Eugene Toxics Right-to-Know program, 96% of all toxic air emissions in 2019 were released into West Eugene. This amounts to 684,159 pounds of toxic chemicals, roughly the equivalent size of the cargo ship that blocked the Suez Canal in March. This is not a new or surprising statistic for the community of West Eugene. They are familiar with the thick smoke that arises from the surrounding industrial facilities and the foul smells that permeate the air.

The West Eugene community is disproportionately exposed to air pollution, has a higher percentage of low-income and minority residents and higher rates of illnesses like asthma or cancer than any other area of Eugene. West Eugene is home to an industrial corridor made up of 35 manufacturing companies. According to the Toxics Report for the City of Eugene, on average, a West Eugene community member is exposed to over 3,000 pounds of harmful toxins every day of the year while other areas of Eugene are exposed to 2 pounds of air toxins every day.

Toxic air emissions in West Eugene can be “overwhelming and frustrating to community members who have seen the negative effects taking hold for years now,” said Arberry-Baribeault, former West Eugene resident. “However, positive change is taking place.”

In 2016, Governor Kate Brown created Cleaner Air Oregon, a new program that enforced a higher standard on industrial toxic emissions in Oregon. In 2019, Lane County adopted the Clean Air Oregon rules. Clean Air Oregon looks at the number of toxic emissions coming out of industrial facilities, the concentration of those emissions and the health risk to people who live, work and play near an industry. It regulates facilities based on potential health risks to community members.

“One of the things that Cleaner Air Oregon emphasizes is bringing community members into the air permitting process,” said Travis Knudsen, Public Affairs Manager at Lane Regional Air Protection Agency (LRAPA). “It’s a good path forward to address community concerns about the health consequences of toxic air pollution.”

Arberry-Baribeault sees Cleaner Air Oregon as a “push for low-income communities all over Oregon’’. Clean Air Oregon has created trust between the West Eugene community and government agencies like LRAPA and The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Cleaner Air Oregon is a step forward in ensuring stricter regulation in the industrial corridor of Lane country.

“My hope and my aspiration are that the entire industrial corridor in West Eugene will be held accountable for the lives that they are destroying,” said Arberry-Baribeault. “It’s not just about those who have gotten sick or have died. It is about the whole community. Those who are not able to go outside, or eat the food in their garden because the air is filled with toxins.

Holding facilities responsible for the harmful pollution they are causing requires community involvement. Community participation is necessary to create even more positive change for the West Eugene community according to Knudsen and Arberry-Baribeault.

According to Knudsen, complaints from the community are one of the best ways that the community can guide LRAPA in their investigations of facilities. Based on the community complaints that LRAPA has received investigations, fenceline monitoring and enforcement action have taken place. Community involvement also helps LRAPA figure out where in Eugene the emissions are moving across and how people might be exposed to it.

“We encourage the community to participate in our community meetings as an opportunity where they can ask questions and voice concerns about the air quality in their neighborhood, ‘’ said Knudsen. “If we host a community meeting and we don’t have a lot of information, that limits how we can include the community in our process when we issue permits.”

LRAPA hosts meetings to discuss topics with community members who are concerned about the air quality in their neighborhoods. The upcoming meeting will be held on June 15th via Zoom. Following this online session, subsequent meetings will focus on specific industrial facilities in West Eugene. This will allow for community members who have specific complaints to raise those concerns with LRAPA. Community members can stay informed with upcoming meetings and information on facilities near them through the LRAPA “notify me” webpage.

Along with community complaints and meetings through LRAPA, concerned residents can send complaints to the DEQ, share their story with Beyond Toxics, attend community meetings and even write letters to congress members.

“There are always going to be limitations for certain things, but I feel that the community’s involvement is limitless,” said Arberry-Baribeault. “One person saying something can cause a little ripple in the water, but if a whole community does something and says something about it, that makes waves. Because a room full of mamas causes problems and makes solutions happen.”

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Victoria Ginzburg

Victoria Ginzburg

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I find meaning in learning the art of storytelling and studying the history and stories of those who are constantly marginalized by white supremacy.