BACKSTORY: Residents say traffic on I-5 is making them sick
Sylvia Evans speaks in a low, raspy whisper, struggling for each breath because of health problems, which, she says, include congestive heart failure. Evans, a mother of three, claims her health was good until she moved into the Plaza Townhomes, a North Portland public housing project situated just north of North Killingsworth Street, one block east of Interstate 5.
'Living here is killing me and my children and everyone else who lives here,' said Evans, who believes the major cause of the health problems are car and truck fumes from the freeway.
Over the past few months, Evans has testified about her health problems at public meetings of the Columbia River Crossing task force, which is considering replacing or supplementing the Interstate Bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash. Ideas under discussion also include rebuilding the freeway interchanges and adding more lanes on both sides of the Columbia River.
One goal of the project is to reduce pollution in North and Northeast Portland by easing congestion on and around the bridge.
Evans is concerned that building a new or supplemental bridge will have the opposite effect, however. She worries that it will increase pollution by encouraging more people to use the freeway - including people who live in Washington and work in Oregon.
'If you make it easier for people to live and work in two states, they will do it, but they won't be responsible for what happens to the people who live in between,' she said.
Evans is not alone in her views. She is part of a grass-roots organization called the Environmental Justice Action Group that was formed to fight pollution in North and Northeast Portland. Its members and supporters believe that pollution is worse in those parts of town, where many minorties and low-income individuals live. They have worked with state agencies and area universities to document the problems over the past decade.
'It's an environmental-justice issue if low-income and minority communities are more adversely affected by pollution than other neighborhoods,' said Bruce Podobnik, a Lewis and Clark College sociology professor who has documented higher-than-average asthma rates among people living along the I-5 corridor in North and Northeast Portland.
The 39-member bistate task force working on the Columbia River Crossing project is taking Evans and the other environmental activists seriously.
Early, the task force formed a committee to study environmental issues related to the project. The committee presented a letter to the task force in February saying that the pollution concerns need to be addressed during the Draft Environmental Impact Study phase of the project, which has just begun.
'The next step is to determine what the air-quality impacts will be,' project spokeswoman Danielle Cogan said.
According to Cogan, the DEIS will include the preparation of an environmental-justice report that will attempt to determine the potential effect of the project on low-income and minority communities.
All of the reports are expected to be completed by the end of the year and released for public comment in early 2008, Cogan said.
The task force and local governments are expected to choose a preferred alternative that year, with the federal government making a final decision in 2009.
Many factors add to disease
Health officials say it is hard to say that an individual's health problem was caused by pollution, in large part because so many other factors can play a role, including income, insurance coverage, heredity, diet and exercise.
'Because of these factors, it is very difficult to say that a certain form of pollution caused a health problem in a specific person,' said Michael Emerson, an asthma epidemiologist with the Oregon Asthma Program of the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Nevertheless, Emerson and other health professionals say that many studies suggest a link between pollution and health problems along the I-5 corridor.
The pollution problems in North and Northeast Portland are no secret. Studies conducted by federal and state agencies have documented them over the years.
One of the most recent studies is the Portland Air Toxics Assessment, which was conducted over the past few years by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
It found that although air throughout the entire metropolitan area is polluted by numerous sources, some toxins related to motor vehicles, including diesel particulates, are especially concentrated along the I-5 corridor.
Monica Russell, DEQ's northwest regional community coordinator, cautions that the agency cannot say how the pollution affects individual people or neighborhoods.
'We cannot pinpoint any single person with any single disease. That would require following them through their lives and studying their other risk factors, like whether they smoke and how much exercise they get,' she said.
But Podobnik has documented increased health problems among people living in North and Northeast Portland. The Lewis and Clark professor oversaw a survey that found elevated rates of asthma among people living in those neighborhoods, especially among black residents.
One of the studies conducted by Podobnik and his students is titled Portland Neighborhood Survey, Report on Findings From Zone 1: The Northeast I-5 Corridor. Published in May 2001, it found that 12.4 percent of neighborhood residents had medically diagnosed asthma, compared with the national average of 7.9 percent and the statewide rate of 9.9 percent.
The survey found that asthma rates among blacks in the survey area was even higher. Although blacks made up 33.7 percent of those answering the survey, they reported nearly half - 47.7 percent - of all the asthma cases.
'African-Americans are significantly over-represented in the asthma category,' the survey report said.
'The survey doesn't show why the rates are higher, but the fact that they are is certainly a cause for concern,' Podobnik said.
A recent California study found that exposure to pollution from freeways and local traffic causes lung problems among children. The study, first published in the Jan. 26 Online First issue of The Lancet medical journal, followed 3,677 children in 12 southern California communities. It found that exposure to pollution from freeways and local traffic affects the lung development and decreases the lung capacity of children.
'Local exposure to traffic on a freeway has adverse effects on children's lung development which are independent of regional air quality, and which could result in important deficits in attained lung function later in life,' the authors wrote.
Evans said that all of her children have asthma, a condition she attributes to living next to the freeway.
Road cut up neighborhood
Some environmentalists now advocate a 1,500-foot buffer between freeways and housing to improve residential air quality. That idea was not even being discussed when I-5 was built through North Portland in the 1950s and 1960s, however. Instead, the freeway - part of the federally funded interstate highway system - was built through existing neighborhoods.
The Oregon portion of I-5 was completed in the fall of 1966 at a cost of $300 million. Although most of the freeway from California to Washington skirted urban centers, many homes were demolished to make way for the portion that runs through North Portland. Concrete walls were built next to some of the remaining homes to reduce traffic noise. The walls do not stop airborne pollution, however.
According to Podobnik, the harmful effects of the I-5 project fell heaviest on low-income and minority neighborhoods.
'I-5 was built on top of a vibrant African-American community, which has not necessarily benefited from it,' he said.
The Oregon Department of Transportation acknowledges that the freeway has degraded the quality of life in the neighborhoods through which it cuts.
'It's obvious that there's an impact from all the car and truck traffic,' said Damon Fordham, ODOT's sustainability program manager.
According to Fordham, ODOT is changing from an agency that builds roads to one that looks at the larger picture, including how roads are used and what it can do to reduce congestion and pollution. ODOT has launched several programs to mitigate the problems caused by its roads in recent years, Fordham said.
For example, as part of a planned project to widen I-5 around Delta Park, ODOT set aside $1 million for a series of community enhancement projects. It appointed a Delta Park Community Enhancement Advisory Board of neighborhood and community representatives to solicit and screen proposed projects.
The board has approved seven projects for funding. They include planting trees in several neighborhoods near the freeway, improving bicycle paths and facilities along area streets and improving the streets in the Kenton retail center.
Evans believes the Columbia River Crossing task force should follow this example on the bridge crossing project. Among other things, she argues that a portion of any road tolls be set aside for neighborhood health clinics.
David Frei, a Vancouver, Wash., computer programmer and a CRC task force member who serves on the environmental-justice committee, agrees that the health concerns are a serious issue.
He is hopeful that air-quality studies to be conducted in the DEIS phase will help determine whether the project will reduce pollution along the I-5 corridor, or merely move it to other bottlenecks, such as the Rose Quarter exit.
'I have no doubt the people in North and Northeast Portland have been adversely impacted by the freeway. The question is, Can we make a real difference or just move the choke points?' Frei said.