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Woodstock resident wins $50,000 grant to advance Lents asthma-linked project

by: Merry MacKinnon, Woodstock resident Jon Ostar co-founded “Organizing People – Activating Leaders”, a nonprofit to address environmental justice issues. OPAL recently received a $50,000 EPA grant to empower the community to address health, development, and pollution issues in Lents neighborhood.

When Woodstock resident Jon Ostar initially joined a community-based group collecting data on asthma rates in low-income areas of Portland, he found it hard to believe Portland had only one organization focused on 'environmental justice'.

In New York and Philadelphia, where Ostar previously lived, problems associated with environmental justice are more apparent, he says, and more advocacy efforts exist.

Now, Portland has at least two environmental justice organizations. And Ostar is co-founder and board president of one of them - a Southeast Portland-based nonprofit called Organizing People - Activating Leaders (OPAL). He also earns his living as an employment lawyer.

'My passion is environmental justice,' he says.

With a recently awarded $50,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to help fund the project, reducing asthma rates and air pollution in Lents along I-205 will be one of OPAL's priorities.

'We don't know what causes asthma, but we know what triggers it,' Ostar explains. 'And some triggers are particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and diesel.'

The idea for OPAL's grant proposal grew out of Ostar's and Kevin Odell's (OPAL's other founder) work with Environmental Justice Action Group (EJAG) around asthma.

Under EJAG's leadership, and with initial data on asthma rates in Portland compiled by an environmental sociology professor at Lewis and Clark College, Ostar and other organizers went door-to-door in the Portsmouth, Overlook, Arbor Lodge, Piedmont and Boise, Eliot, Humboldt, and King neighborhoods, surveying residents on health, and indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Their data corroborated the earlier findings that a severe asthma problem existed, especially amongst those households living next to Interstate 5, Columbia Boulevard, and Lombard Street, where there's a lot of truck traffic. 'We found asthma rates of about 14 percent in Inner North and Northeast Portland and the national average is about seven percent. In Southwest Portland it's five percent.'

Asthma rates were higher not only for those residing next to a highway, but also for low-income and minority households.

Those findings are interpreted as underscoring OPAL's position that economic justice is an essential component of environmental justice: 'Neither myself nor OPAL draw a distinction between economic and environmental justice,' Ostar says.

While enrolled at Lewis and Clark Law School in 2002, Ostar first began working for EJAG in Inner North and Northeast Portland, where he says he saw similarities between gentrification's impact on low-income residents in New York and here.

'As Brooklyn [in New York] gentrified, low-income people and minorities were slowly pushed out. And the same thing's happening in Portland,' he said. 'The most vulnerable have been pushed out, first to the Lents or to Cully neighborhood, and now to Gresham.'

Currently, with construction of the I-205 MAX light rail system, along with other development projects in Lents, OPAL's mission, says Ostar, will be to prevent Lents from becoming gentrified in a way that displaces low-income households and minorities already living there, as well as to address Interstate 205's effect on neighborhood air quality and health.

'Portland seems to replicate this model of 'urban chic' redevelopment and urban renewal, such that historic communities around Alberta and Mississippi and now possibly Lents lose their character,' Ostar says. 'It seems like they're catering to one specific demographic, white and privileged, and ignoring the needs of low-income minority communities.'

How would OPAL try to change the gentrification scenario for Lents, or to reduce air pollution? 'By empowering the community,' Ostar says. 'Environmental justice is really about access to decision making, gaining a seat at the table, so otherwise-ignored people can advocate for themselves.'

As an example of how a seat at the table can make all the difference, Ostar refers anecdotally to the original planning for Interstate 405 and MAX light rail to Beaverton and Hillsboro. 'Because they have access, those communities kicked and screamed,' Ostar says, 'And they received millions of dollars in mitigation, to build embankments and to plant trees.' Since then, he adds, 'The City is actually learning in this regard, as they are offering a substantial mitigation fund for the proposed I-5 expansion running through North Portland.'

But when I-205 originally cut the Lents neighborhood in half, little by way of mitigation occurred, Ostar says. There's a small embankment, and he alleges that the trees are not thick enough to filter particles and chemicals to keep highway-generated air pollution from reaching the homes bordering the highway.

Meanwhile, it should take about two years for OPAL to get on its feet, Ostar estimates. After that, OPAL's work will be done, when the nonprofit is no longer needed. 'It's not OPAL's goal to go and advocate for others,' Ostar says. 'The goal is to get folks to rally their own community and to demand change.'