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Brentwood-Darlington quizzes officials about Castparts chemical release

by: David F. Ashton Officials and neighbors meet in Southeast Uplift’s Fireside Room on June 30th, for a public forum regarding the chemical release at Precision Castparts Corporation.

To learn more about that 'toxic orange cloud' release on May 11th, due to a power failure at Precision Castparts Corporation, the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association (BDNA) held a public forum at Southeast Uplift, near Hawthorne Boulevard, to seek answers. The meeting took place on June 30th.

BDNA Chair Christopher Hart recalled how the event had frightened neighbors in the Woodstock and Ardenwald-Johnson Creek neighborhoods, as well as his own. During the incident, streets were blocked off, and officials had few answers or suggestions, other than simply to stay indoors with windows closed.

Some who attended the Uplift meeting castigated Castparts, and questioned the wisdom of operating a manufacturing facility in an area surrounded by homes. Others demanded to know what caused the situation, the exact nature of chemical release, and what adverse effects that exposure might have.

Precision Castpart's Manager of Environmental Affairs, Dave Murray, explained that the incident had begun when the plant experienced an electrical interruption in Portland General Electric service. This, in turn, damaged the plant's electrical switch gear and kept their emergency backup generators from supplying power to the crane which dips titanium into a chemical vat, and powers their 'air scrubbers' to clean the exhaust air.

'It doesn't seem that this is a very good backup system,' suggested BDNA Vice-Chair John Reichlein.

'We still don't understand the exact nature of the switching gear problem that caused this damage,' Murray added. 'This has happened just once in 50 years. We are working to understand the problem so it does not happen again. It's been a giant hassle for everyone to deal with.'

Asked about reported releases in 2010 of 126 tons of pollutants - including 53 tons of volatile organic compounds and 24 tons of nitrogen dioxide - Murray responded that typical PCC emissions are within the limits of their license. 'But this incident is considered an 'excess' release,' said Greg Grunow, an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality air inspector at the meeting.

'What does this release of chemicals do to people, plants, and things?' a neighbor asked.

DEQ's Grunow responded with a chemistry lecture.'The 'orange cloud' that has been referred to would have contained oxides and nitrogen. There are two forms of oxides and nitrogen. One is nitrogen oxide, the other is nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen oxide has far fewer effects than the nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen oxide is clear. Nitrogen dioxide is reddish brown, and would've been the chemical that caused the orange cloud. It's in the atmosphere all the time. It comes from fuel combustion.

'However, you don't see orange clouds coming out of cars, because it's coming out in small quantities. It is a pollutant that we regulate. These types of pollutants are in the air all the time, and they disperse rapidly in the atmosphere. [But] the oxides of nitrogen would have been at quite high concentration in order for you to see the orange cloud. . . Nitrogen dioxide could be bad for your respiratory system.'

Turning to the failure of Multnomah County's 'Reverse 9-1-1 Call' system that had led to a flurry of finger-pointing between the Bureau of Emergency Communications and the Portland Office of Emergency Management - as reported in the June issue of THE BEE - officials at the meeting said that they believed that the communication problem had been solved.

'If the incident commander wants our FirstCall system used, then by all means, we are ready to use it,' assured POEM spokesman Dan Douthit. 'We used it for the Alpenrose Dairy anhydrous ammonia leak [near Beaverton] at the request of the incident commander.'

Douthit strongly recommended citizens without listed wire-line telephones sign up to receive such FirstCall emergency communications online at the Internet website: www.publicalerts.org .

After the meeting, BDNA's Chair Hart told THE BEE, 'It was important for neighbors to be able to come and get information directly from the officials involved in this incident.'