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The Oregonian created the map based on 2013 data from the U.S. Forest Service that used innovative measurements of moss samples to track toxic air emissions. The one showing the lead blob in the Kenton neighborhood was one in a series of maps showing elevated levels of heavy metals found in tree moss.


SOURCE: KENTONLEADBLOB.COM - When a map showed an ominous 'lead blob' over Kenton, local resident and filmmaker Zach Putnam teamed with Richard Percy to produce a documentary and do research that helped clear the air. 

In North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood, they call it the “lead blob.”

The blob, a graphic depiction on a map produced by The Oregonian newspaper in February, indicates a toxic hotspot of lead contamination in Kenton.

Folks in Kenton, where Zach Putnam lives, grew worried. That led Putnam, a documentary filmmaker and graduate student in the University of Oregon’s multimedia journalism program in Portland, onto an investigative journey, culminating in the release of a video documentary in June. Putnam’s findings eased some neighbors’ anxiety about the lead blob, but also raised other concerns about potential sources of the lead, including leaded gasoline still in use by race cars at nearby Portland International Raceway.

“It’s a scary thing, you know, I have two little children. The house I just purchased is in a blob of lead,” says Carmel Karni, a resident featured in the film.

The map

The Oregonian created the map based on 2013 data from the U.S. Forest Service that used innovative measurements of moss samples to track toxic air emissions. The one showing the lead blob in the Kenton neighborhood was one in a series of maps showing elevated levels of heavy metals found in tree moss. The Forest Service data prompted heightened concerns about heavy metal releases near Bullseye Glass. Then came air quality investigations of industrial emissions near Bullseye, and later near Precision Castparts.

Students in Putnam’s graduate school class were tasked with looking into air quality issues in Oregon. “At the time, that was the big story in the news,” he says.

“So students looked into different parts of that story — and for me, when the story broke and those maps came out, I looked at the one for lead and saw that there was a big scary blob right over my house,” Putnam says.

The blob was depicted using green, shades of orange, and red to indicate severity of lead levels in the moss — like a weather map showing a thunderstorm. At the epicenter is the cross-section of North Peninsular Avenue and Argyle Street, just west of Kenton Park.

The documentary

Putnam decided to dig deeper into what the map might mean and engaged neighbors in the process.

Starting the investigation, he created a thread on NextDoor.com, a private social network for neighborhoods, alerting residents of the lead contamination reports. He interviewed several residents who have homes within the blob depicted on the map.

Alarmed, Kenton residents rallied together to collect soil samples of their own.

COURTESY: WES POPE / UNIVERSITY OF OREGON - University of Oregon multimedia journalism master's program students attended the premiere of 'The Kenton Lead Blob' documentary this summer. From left to right are Zach Putnam and Richard Percy, co-producers of the film, and David MacKay and Joe Kuffner.

More than 60 soil samples were collected and then tested by Lead Safe America, a nonprofit based in Portland.

While Putnam says those tests were “barely scientific,” they didn’t show any “off-the-charts lead contamination.” The documentary states that all samples collected tested below the federal hazard levels.

“It was fun because it was a sort of mix of investigative journalism and literally just going around my neighborhood, going to meetings and talking to people trying to learn about it,” Putnam says.

He did his best to obtain the original U.S. Forest Service data so that “we could analyze it ourselves and figure out if there wasn’t a better way to represent it.”

He and his team, including fellow students Richard Percy and David MacKay, created a map that combined their samples, Oregonian data and further data from the U.S. Forest Service. It’s represented on an interactive map at kentonleadblob.com, where the documentary can also be viewed.

Ultimately, Putnam doesn’t believe there is a lead blob or hot spot of lead contamination in Kenton. Rather, he surmises that there was just one outlier data point, which, based on cross-reference with residential demolition data in the neighborhood, might have come from a single 2013 home demolition that occurred at the epicenter of the blob.

Lead-based paint was used in many homes built before 1978; one of the most common ways that lead gets into the body is through dust.

Though Portland recently adopted a home-deconstruction ordinance in an effort to reduce hazardous air emissions associated with lead and asbestos in demolitions, it is required only for homes built before 1916. Lead paint was banned in 1976.

One of Putnam’s biggest takeaways from his investigation is that lead is still ubiquitous.

“I kind of thought lead poisoning was something that was largely behind us and lead products didn’t really exist anymore,” he says. “And then when we started to research and talk to people who know about lead poisoning, you realize like, oh there’s actually still quite a few risks ... whether it’s in old paint or even in, you know, racecar fuel.”

NoPo neighbors alarmed leaded fuel still used at PIR

The furor over the “lead blob” map — showing a toxic hotspot of lead in the air over the Kenton neighborhood — has shifted to a new suspected culprit: race cars.

It turns out that race cars are exempt from the national ban on leaded gasoline, and often are driven at Portland International Raceway, not too far from Kenton. The issue was brought to light by a recent video documentary by Zach Putnam, a Kenton resident and a graduate student in the University of Oregon’s multimedia journalism program in Portland.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Most cars at Portland International Raceway do not use leaded fuel anymore, including this Dodge Challenger Hellcat.In 2015, 3,300 gallons of leaded gasoline were dispensed at the raceway, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

After viewing Putnam’s documentary, the Kenton Neighborhood Association wrote Portland Parks & Recreation, which owns the race track, of their concerns about use of leaded gasoline there.

Eileen Argentina, manager of the bureau’s Recreation Services Division, sent a letter to the neighborhood association, trying to allay its concerns. “After researching the history of regulation of lead in gas, and consulting with our health, safety, and environmental consultant, we are confident that use of leaded gas at PIR events complies with applicable (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations designed to protect public health,” Argentina wrote.

Her letter states that the number of cars still using leaded fuel is small and declining. “For some vehicles and some events, it continues to be an essential component of competitive racing and the PIR experience.”

The letter adds that Putnam’s documentary “clearly has a much broader focus and recognizes the complexity of tracking and analyzing causal factors when exploring toxins in our environment,” and that the bureau is focusing its efforts on remediation of lead paint on play equipment.

Tyler Roppe, chairman of the Kenton Neighborhood Association, isn’t pleased with the Parks Bureau response.

“I find it hard to take the city at their word that allowing leaded gasoline at the track is a ‘safe’ practice at a public park located in an ecologically sensitive area,” Roppe says.

The hubbub in Kenton prompted Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who lives in Kenton, to intervene. After viewing the documentary, Kotek send a letter to the Parks Bureau on Oct. 21, urging the bureau to take steps to decrease use of leaded fuel at the raceway and to educate the public about its presence.

She called for the city to develop a plan to ban leaded fuel “or highly restrict its use” by 2018.

The Parks Bureau says it plans to require vendors at PIR to track types and quantities of vehicle fuel they sell, starting in 2017. Additionally, it plans to add new signs at the raceway alerting attendees of health concerns.

“During this fall and winter, PIR has far fewer events,” Argentina says. “This gives us the opportunity to fully assess the use of leaded gas at PIR, develop a plan to capture data, and consult with health, safety and environmental expertise.”

Jeffrey Stocum, air quality technical services manager at the DEQ, says leaded gasoline comes from a Pennsylvania distributor that sells 29,000 to 35,000 gallons of Arco 110 leaded per year, and ships some of its product here by railcar. The fuel is brought to the raceway in 55-gallon drums and dispensed directly via a drum pump.

“Attendance was sparse for the racing events where the leaded gas was used — mostly family and friends bringing racing vehicles to the track,” Stocum says.

He says there are five gas stations in the area that are exempt from the leaded gasoline ban and allowed to sell leaded racing gas. “But we don’t know yet how much they sell,” he says. “Overall, we have nine speedways in Oregon, but based on what we know about PIR, there might not be enough gas combusted to cause any localized impact for lead. However, DEQ is not necessarily discounting any potential impacts.”

The PIR part of the “Kenton lead blob” investigation came as a surprise to Putnam, and arose when a resident brought up the raceway during discussions at NextDoor.com. His investigation was prompted by lead concentrations in moss detected by the U.S. Forest Service, and graphically depicted in a map produced by The Oregonian newspaper.

“I thought that (leaded gas use) was illegal,” Putnam says. “I thought that it just didn’t exist anymore.”

Leaded fuel began to be phased out of use for motor vehicles after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, though full prohibition wasn’t until 1995. Lead levels in the air decreased by 94 percent between 1980 and 1999 as a result, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, it is still lawful to use leaded gasoline in racecars, which are considered “off-road” vehicles.

According to information posted at sunocoracefuels.com, which distributes leaded fuel, lead is still used because it is a “very effective octane booster.”

Find out more

See the map and documentary at kentonleadblob.com

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