What's that smell?
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What's that smell?

Student research shifts nuisance odor investigation

The sun was just beginning to rise as Logan Simpson stepped out of his house and set off on his short walk to the University of Portland. As he breathed in the crisp summer air, he was suddenly sure he could smell it: The faint but distinguishable aroma of paint fumes.

The smell faded as he walked farther through campus to Shiley Hall, where he would continue his summer research analyzing the source and frequency of the fumes he had just inhaled.

Like Simpson, many UP students do undergraduate research projects with faculty. But not many get to see their research make an immediate difference in the real world and affect government decisions, let alone the air we breathe.

A project led by Ted Eckmann, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies, has compelled the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to reconsider its ruling stating Daimler Trucks North America does not cause excessive “nuisance odors” in the university neighborhood.

Now, the DEQ is in the midst of a follow-up investigation concerning the Daimler plant because Oregon State Representative and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) urged the agency to reconsider the Daimler decision after noting that the UP study was more thorough than the DEQ’s research.

For its part, Daimler says that while the company takes the neighborhood’s concerns seriously, it maintains it is not the source of nuisance odors and says there is no evidence its facility is emitting unsafe levels of toxics.

DEQ’s Northwest Region Division Administrator Nina DeConcini told The Beacon one of the challenges of this case has been the subjective element of what constitutes a “nuisance”.

The Problem

Intermittent industrial odors are a fact of life on campus and in the university neighborhood, thanks to a thicket of industrial facilities below the bluff on Swan Island, not just Daimler.

An Environmental Protection Agency online mapping tool of its Toxics Release Inventory Program (TRI) shows that dozens of industrial sites close to UP emit toxic substances into the air. Within the zip code that covers Swan Island (97217), the EPA documents numerous air toxins from industry, totaling 245,000 pounds emitted in 2015, the most recent records available.

Hazardous air pollutants from Swan Island industrial facilities listed in the 2015 TRI include ethylbenzene, lead, naphthalene, methanol and xylene.

Click on the blue dots below to see the names of the industries near UP:

People who live in neighborhoods above the bluff, including UP faculty and staff, have complained to the DEQ about air quality for years. They blame industrial pollution for headaches, nausea, watering eyes and dizziness, symptoms that have been linked to the industrial chemicals, according to the Center for Disease Control. They also worry about long-term health effects.

Joining forces as Neighbors for Clean Air a few years ago, neighbors zeroed in on Daimler’s truck manufacturing plant, specifically its painting operation. The group has filed public comments complaining of fumes coming from Daimler.

“My name is Dennis Poklikuha, and I live at 7063 N. Wellesley Ave., where Daimler’s carcinogenic paint fumes are most concentrated,” one commenter wrote. “I have been breathing those fumes for twenty years. What is the big deal about breathing carcinogens, and what is so bad about getting cancer today? With current improvements in medicine, most cancers can now be treated, and even cured. Or, you just die.”

While there’s no indication Daimler’s emissions exceed legal limits or violate its permit, critics accuse the DEQ of generally taking a passive approach in regulating industrial polluters. And Governor Kate Brown has ordered a major overhaul of the state’s approach to regulating air toxins, shifting to a health-based approach.

House Speaker Kotek’s letter to the DEQ last spring indicated her dissatisfaction with its investigation of Daimler after she reviewed the study done by Eckmann and his students.

“Researchers at the University of Portland conducted an extensive, scientifically-sound study of nuisance odors,” Kotek wrote. “I am concerned that the evidence collected (by the DEQ) and the subsequent analysis may be flawed and might not provide an accurate assessment of the nuisance odor situation.”

Eckmann was even more direct in his criticism of DEQ’s research, finding fault with where the odors had been measured, how often they had been measured and what he said was the lack of consistency in measurement collection.

“The DEQ found that 3 percent of their 760 observations detected odor,” Eckmann said. “With spatial and temporal biases, that number means nothing.”

Eckmann was also not impressed with Daimler’s internal research study.

“Daimler’s own study of themselves obviously has a conflict-of-interest bias because it wasn’t conducted or analyzed by an impartial observer," Eckmann told The Beacon. “Conversely, I’m pretty impartial on this issue because I don’t work for Daimler and I don’t live in the area affected by the odors... More importantly, our study is scientifically valid, whereas the DEQ and Daimler studies are not, due to their biases.”

How U.P. Research Affected the Process

Eckmann and a group of students began their year-long study in Oct. 2014. They measured nuisance odor levels three times a day at 19 stations on campus and in other locations around the neighborhood. By Oct. 2015, the team had collected over 23,000 data points of odor levels in various locations at different times of day.

Logan Simpson and Joe Walker (now juniors) and Samantha Walker, (‘16) joined Eckmann after the data collection process to analyze the measurements. 

“The source was predominantly Daimler, and it was not a rare phenomenon,” Eckmann said. “We measured odors 20 percent of the time.”

Eckmann and students also measured the wind direction at weather stations when the odor was detected. The correlation between wind direction and odor intensity led them to conclude that Daimler was producing a nuisance odor.

“The winds were far more frequently from the southeast when we detected odor,” Eckmann said. “That means the source of odor must be south-southeast from the station. What’s south-southeast of the station? Daimler.”

For the students, the experience was exhilarating.

“When we had all of the analysis and we could say, yes, it is Daimler … it was really exciting,” Simpson said. “We were like, oh my gosh, this is adding up.”

The DEQ published results of its initial nuisance odor investigation on March 18, 2016, ruling that Daimler was not a source of odors at a level that would constitute a “nuisance”. After reading the report, Eckmann decided to present his own results at a public hearing the following month.

“I was the only scientist at the meeting,” Eckmann said. “Before I pointed out the problems with this, no one was questioning the DEQ study at all.”

Following his presentation, Oregon’s House Speaker was not only questioning it, but asking DEQ to reconsider its ruling, collect more data and take the UP study into account.

What Daimler Says

Daimler lists several steps it has taken to address neighborhood concerns about air quality, including doing its own one-year study of air sampling, changing to less odorous and hazardous solvents, primer and paint and modifying its production equipment and processes.

In an email to The Beacon, Daimler spokesman David Giroux suggested there are other sources of nuisance odors to consider, noting that there are major industries as well as auto body shops in the area that “operate without the technologically advanced emissions control equipment” Daimler uses.

“DTNA (Daimler Trucks North America) is resolute that we are not the source of nuisance odors, nor is there any data that supports the assertion that we are emitting unsafe levels of toxic chemicals into the air shed,” Giroux wrote. “The DEQ is investigating all of the data provided by the University of Portland in an effort to further determine the source of the odors.”

During its evaluation process, the DEQ has also requested information from Vigor Industrial, a Swan Island ship repair facility that has won praise for entering a voluntary Good Neighbor Agreement with neighbors and making significant changes to minimize environmental hazards.

What Happens Now?

According to DeConcini, the DEQ’s new, ongoing nuisance odor investigation is considering additional data, including Eckmann’s report, additional complaints from North Portland residents and production data from Vigor, specifically when the shipyard is painting and what crews are using.

Another factor the DEQ will consider is whether Daimler’s costs for further minimizing odors would be “reasonable” for the company to bear.

In a letter to Daimler last November, the DEQ took issue with the analysis the company submitted initially in the case.

“The analysis does not adequately evaluate the actual operations at the facility, and appears to overestimate control costs,” the letter said, requesting that Daimler submit new data.

The DEQ is awaiting Daimler’s response, according to DeConcini.

“At this time we are still working on reconciling all of the additional data sets to ensure a comprehensive evaluation prior to reaching a final conclusion for our investigation,” DeConcini said.

'It's Really Rewarding'

Simpson and Walker are both amazed by the impact of their research.

“It’s awesome,” Simpson said. “I never would have thought we would be doing something this big. It actually affects something in the real world. A lot of research, like in biology or something, is really interesting, but a lot of times you don’t see the impact it has because it’s so specialized. It’s really rewarding actually to see environmental research being put into play and how many people it affects.”

Simpson also placed second at the annual research conference for Sigma Xi, the national scientific research society, in the “Earth and Environmental Sciences” category. He and another junior, who presented a different study, were the first students from UP’s environmental studies department to compete and win awards at the event.

Simpson and Walker have shared their research on nuisance odors at a number of conferences, which they say has given them a greater appreciation for its significance.

“When I went to present this research at Gonzaga, there was a lot of good research being presented, but our research had good data and then the follow through — the societal impact and how it relates to the local community,” Walker said. “It’s actually doing some good.”

As the DEQ continues to work toward a final decision, Eckmann says his research suggests that, in the meantime, North Portland residents and University community members are breathing dangerous air.

“I am doing this not as a purely scientific effort, but I spend enough time here that I’m at risk for breathing these things too,” Eckmann said. “We all are.”


"Invisible Suffering: The Air We Share" Event

What: "An interdisciplinary conversation on the topic of clean air," to include a presentation by the president of Neighbors for Clean Air

Date: Monday, Feb. 6

Time: 7-8:30 p.m.

Location: UP Bookstore


Emily Peterson contributed reporting to this story.