Story by Richard Percy
Three years ago in Portland, Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service began a groundbreaking study into the Rose City’s air quality. Knowing that elemental concentrations found in moss reflect what’s in the atmosphere, they were able to use samples of the plant to identify toxic chemicals plaguing the air, and in some cases, their sources.
Twenty-two elements were identified citywide, including cadmium, arsenic, lead, cobalt and chromium. The presence of this particular handful of known detriments fell on the people of Portland like a cattle prod. Many residents were alarmed to find out that moss samples taken from their neighborhoods tested positive for dangerous levels of heavy metals and toxic chemicals. They feared for their families, whose gardens could be contaminated, and especially for their children, some of whom attended schools in contamination hotspots. The collective finger was quickly pointed at glass manufacturers in the area, as these businesses use many of the offending chemicals in their glass-making process.
This spring at the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) George S. Turnbull Portland Center, a cohort of Multimedia Journalism Master’s program students decided to devote a 10-week term to reporting on this story. By the end of the term, they had created a multimedia website called The Portland Air Problem.
In the students’ minds, the glass factories implicated by the Forest Service’s findings were not the real problem, though they became the target of the public’s outrage. The cohort aimed instead to address the laws that allowed those businesses to operate so hazardously. They argue that while Portland shows a lot of concern for the quality of its water, it tends to show less for the quality of its air.
“Wood-burning stoves, diesel trucks and low-quality gasoline all make Portland home to some of the very worst air quality in the country,” the students say in the written introduction to their final project.
The 10 members of the cohort ultimately made four short documentary videos, each of which aims to understand an important perspective on the issue of Portland’s air quality. The first provides an overview of Portland’s air laws and why they fall short of protecting residents. The second takes a look at how local communities are responding to the shock of finding out their air is not as clean as they thought. The third follows one family as they decide to take their child out of his school, which is in close proximity to Bullseye Glass. The fourth tries to capture the perspective of glass makers whose business and craft is being villainized.
Visit pdxair.uoregon.edu to see the final project, as well as the cohort’s resources and citations.