ODOT won’t commit to healthy air quality for Harriet Tubman Middle School students

ODOT won’t commit to healthy air quality for Harriet Tubman Middle School students

“‘Improve’ [air quality] is not the standard we want… You could have technically an improvement, but it could be immaterial and the air is still not safe for and healthy for children.”
— Julia Brim-Edwards, Portland Public Schools Board member

Why an expansion of I-5 matters to Portland Public Schools (Harriet Tubman Middle School outlined in red).
(Graphic: Portland State University)

Even though drivers on Interstate 5 through north Portland already emit unhealthy levels of toxic gases from their cars and trucks, the Oregon Department of Transportation wants to widen it and bring those vehicles even closer to the kids who attend Harriet Tubman Middle School.

“Not ‘do no harm’, ‘do better’.”
— Brendan Finn, ODOT Urban Mobility Office director

Poor air quality is why Portland Public Schools spent $20 million on a new air filtration system when the school reopened in 2018. It’s also a big reason why ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter project is so controversial. In 2018 a Portland State University air quality study (PDF) said outdoor activities should be limited, and in April 2019 Tubman students donned masks at a rally against the project.

At a meeting of the project’s Executive Steering Committee Monday night, Portland Public Schools Board Member Julia Brim-Edwards (a top executive at Nike) tried to strengthen ODOT’s commitment to air quality around Tubman. She targeted the ESC’s “Values Statement” (PDF) which includes a section titled, “Climate Action and Improved Public Health”.

At the previous meeting in September, Brim-Edwards proposed new language in the Values Statement that would specifically reference Tubman. Her desired text was: “Air quality on the grounds of Harriet Tubman Middle School and adjacent Lillis Albina Park is at a level medical and public health officials say is safe for children and public use.”

That language wasn’t acceptable to ODOT.


(Source: ODOT Values Statement)

ODOT Urban Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn said the agency could only “improve” air quality. “That is an outcome the agency could have a high level of confidence that we could accomplish,” Finn said. “Not ‘do no harm’,’do better’.”

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson (whose Measure 26-218 is being strongly opposed by Nike) then quickly chimed in to support ODOT’s language. But Brim-Edwards wanted more of a discussion because she was still unclear whether her proposed language had been added to the Values Statement. It had not. Finn inserted his language into the document and failed to discuss the issue with Brim-Edwards prior to yesterday’s meeting where the Values would be voted on for formal adoption.

“I think ‘improve’ is not the standard we would want,” Brim-Edwards said. “The concern is with the language that Brendan [Finn] suggested you could have technically an improvement, but it could be immaterial and the air is still not safe for and healthy for children to be outside. And that would not just be for the school district grounds, but also for anybody who’s recreating in the adjacent Portland parks,” she continued.

I-5 Rose Quarter project Executive Steering Committee.

The Values Statement was then adopted 10-1 with Brim-Edwards as the only “no”.

When Brim-Edwards continued to press Finn on the “improvement” language, he said his intention was to create a metric to have a baseline to compare to.

To which Brim-Edwards asked, “So if this is a metric, what are you suggesting the level of improvement be? Was the improvement based on consulting with health professionals?” Finn then referred to ODOT’s existing air quality study and said he would get Brim-Edwards the information after the meeting. When Brim-Edwards continued to express her concerns, ODOT Project Manager Megan Channell came to Finn’s aid to say metrics could be part of “a conversation” to happen later in the process.

“What was just approved though, is a standard that may still be unhealthy for students who are outside Harriet Tubman are in the adjacent park,” Brim-Edwards continued, while trying to press her case. Then meeting facilitator Steven Holt abruptly ended the discussion.

Later in the meeting, TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey said he felt Brim-Edwards was “shunted aside” and “kind of cut off a little bit.” “I don’t want to led that go. It was a bit edgy how we just moved off and just put her on the sideline and I don’t think that’s fair to fellow members,” he said.

After the meeting I asked Brim-Edwards if she felt her concerns were addressed. “No, and I was surprised that there was a rush to adopt and validate the inadequate language,” she replied. “They have not provided baseline data for this metric they’re proposing and it’s not clear the ‘improvements’ would meet public health standards for air quality for children or youth.”

Back in September a different advisory committee for this project was disbanded and 14 of its members said ODOT did it to silence opposition. Earlier this month the City of Portland made the unprecedented decision to completely withdraw as a partner on the project due in part to ODOT’s repeated failures to act on stakeholder input.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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