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Precision Castparts reaches out to public

Precision Castparts Corp., the Portland-based company that makes jet engine parts in Southeast Portland, is trying to make peace with its neighbors.

A turning point came in early April, after the Portland Tribune revealed how extensively the company, now owned by billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, had contaminated the air and water around two of its factories in Southeast Portland and Milwaukie. Since then, the company has announced a number of steps to both reduce the pollution and repair its rocky relationship with nearby residents in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood.

“PCC is proud of being part of this community,” Precision Castparts Corp. spokesman Jay Khetani said recently. “We are fully committed to safety and to environmentally responsible manufacturing practices. We want people to know that.”

Precision Castparts announced that it is spending $5.9 million this year for air and water pollution control equipment, including a new stormwater-treatment system and new baghouses and other devices that filter tiny particles from air released by its smokestacks. In 2014-2015, it says it spent $10.9 million on local projects that “produced environmental benefits either directly or as part of overall plant improvements.”

The work on the new pollution-control projects is projected to be completed in July.

Jacob Sherman, a leader in the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association and the newly formed South Portland Air Quality group, said he needs proof before he can feel assured that the company is installing the best available pollution controls.

“We have let them know that this needs to be independently verified,” Sherman said. He called for a “top-to-bottom” audit of the plants to find “all the places where it can make improvements.”

At this point, the most obvious change is the company’s newfound willingness to share information. Until the end of March, Precision Castparts kept a tight lid on information.

But in April, an era of openness began. The company sent a letter to “all of our neighbors,” addressing issues raised in the media, and Khetani promised the company would become more transparent during a presentation before the Milwaukie City Council. It also launched a new website, where it has published a variety of fact sheets and environmental reports, plus a detailed frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page.

It held a number of small meetings with neighborhood and elected leaders. And on May 25, Precision Castparts will host a community meeting in Clackamas to discuss neighbor concerns.

At the meeting, Sherman said neighbors hope to hear “less spin” from the company. “They have spent a lot of time telling people what they don’t use, and not much time talking about what they do use.”

Sherman also criticized the choice of the Monarch Hotel, which is located 4 miles from the neighborhood. “It will be a community meeting that’s not being held in our community.” Precision has offered to provide a bus to transport residents to the meeting.

As the Tribune was researching two stories on the company's pollution issues, the company refused to give any specific answers to questions. Instead, it issued a terse one-paragraph statement that claimed it “is committed to the safety of our employees and neighbors and in minimizing our impact on the environment.”

Both articles raised questions about that commitment. The first exposed the company’s emissions of two highly carcinogenic compounds to the air, hexavalent chromium and nickel, and their measurable effect on projected cancer rates in the local area. The second story revealed that Precision Castparts had discharged toxic waste into a storm sewer on-site, and that some of the waste had reached Johnson Creek and the groundwater.

Toxic waste found in the creek included PCBs, lead, chromium, nickel, radioactive thorium and a dozen other mostly carcinogenic compounds. The city of Portland fined PCC $1,050 in 2014 and ordered it to remove 20.5 tons of waste from the storm sewer. The most dangerous material was hauled off to a hazardous waste dump in Idaho.