40 yrs. after smelter closes, DEQ tests for lead, upsetting residents

40 yrs. after smelter closes, DEQ tests for lead, upsetting residents »Play Video
Geologist Ken Cameron tests the soil for lead at the site of a former metal smelter where a duplex now stands. The smelter closed down in the mid-1970s.

PORTLAND, Ore. - Residents near a closed-down metal smelter are concerned and angry after lead contamination was discovered there.

Multnomah Metal Co. Works went out of business in the mid-1970s and today there's no sign of it to the naked eye in the Johns Landing neighborhood.

State scientists with the Department of Environmental Quality are trying to figure out if the lead in the soil is a health concern. But some who live in the neighborhood wish the state had never gotten involved and everyone just left it alone.

The lead came from the small smelter that used to sit where a duplex now stands, and it melted all sorts of metals. It was in business for 65 years before shutting down in 1975. Then it was demolished.

Geologist Ken Cameron and project manager Scott Manzano are taking preliminary soil readings at 20 properties over two days using a hand-held X-ray gun. The instrument analyzes frequencies in light and will tell scientists the lead level in the soil.

According to the DEQ, lead levels over 400 parts per million are a cause for health concerns. At the former smelter location the scientist measured levels of 1000 parts per million. Next door, they found the levels were between 200 and 600 and a block away levels were between 200 and 500 parts per million.

"We're seeing pretty high concentrations at the property (duplex) itself, but then when you move immediately away (there's) significantly less concentration," said Manzano.

Several neighbors said they're concerned about what happens to their property values when prospective buyers learn about the lead. Some neighbors also said there's some bad blood between people who want the DEQ to step in and others who wish the contamination wasn't brought to the state's attention.

Dawn Lewis lives in the house that sits on the old smelter site. Like several other neighbors she said she thinks DEQ should have left the lead issue alone after so many years have gone by.

"I think it's a lot of wasted money, and I think a lot of homeowners are losing their equity in their homes," she said. "You'd have to literally ingest the lead and we're not eating the lead."

According to the DEQ, cleanup could include removing soil or it could be as simple as covering it with a thin barrier-like landscaping tarp.

"We're assuming there're some properties that may have to have some action and DEQ would plan to pay for it," Manzano said. "If we can't afford it, we'd ask EPA to help us with that."

DEQ will announce a cleanup plan in September.