Neighbors file suits against Precision Castparts

Lawsuit claims toxic air emissions harmed neighbors' health and decreased property values

Precision Castparts, file. (KOIN)
Precision Castparts, file. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Six residents of Southeast Portland have filed two separate class-action lawsuits against Precision Castparts Corp., alleging that its toxic air emissions have harmed their health and decreased property values, according to court documents filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Amy Williams-Derry, a lawyer with the Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback, who represents four of the plaintiffs, said she expects the cases eventually to be combined.

“PCC has been identified as one of the nation’s worst polluters,” Williams-Derry’s complaint says. “Its South Portland Operations release significant amounts of pollution, including arsenic and nickel, into the surrounding neighborhood. PCC’s emissions have created a hotspot of pollution in South Portland.”

Company spokesman Jay Khetani declined to comment on the cases. “PCC does not comment on pending litigation,” he said.

A member of the South Portland Air Quality coalition, which has protested the company’s pollution in recent months, applauded the legal action. “Where government regulators have long ignored the well-being of the community and have failed to keep Precision Castparts accountable for air and water pollution, we hope the class action lawsuit will keep the company accountable for its industrial pollution,” said Amy O’Connor.

At its plant at 4600 S.E. Harney St., Precision Castparts produces nickel-based superalloys, titanium, stainless steel and aluminum investment castings. At 162 plants worldwide, it makes parts for the aerospace, defense and medical industries, and employs about 30,500 people, including nearly 2,800 in the Portland area. In January, Berkshire-Hathaway, the investment firm controlled by Warren Buffett, acquired Precision Castparts for a reported $37 billion.

The first lawsuit was filed in May by Brian and Rodica Resendez, residents of the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood near the plant. The second was filed Friday, July 8, by four other neighbors: Kelley Foster, Juan Prat-Sanchez, Kirk Gayton, and Debra Taevs.

They filed the cases individually and on behalf of a class of all other similarly situated but unnamed people. Williams-Derry said no specific amount of damages have been set.

Taevs lives within one block of the plant. Foster and Prat-Sanchez live half a mile away; Gayton and the Resendezes live about a mile away. They each argue that they have been forced to cease or dramatically curtail outdoor activities such as gardening in order to try to reduce their exposure to Precision Castparts’ toxic emissions.

For example, Gayton said that when the wind blows from the direction of PCC’s South Portland operations, “he and his family no longer spend time outside their house or in their neighborhood,” the lawsuit states.

“Once he enjoyed walking through his neighborhood, and visiting the local park with his family, where they would meet friends and neighbors,” the suit alleges. “But now he and his family routinely drive away from the neighborhood, to other parks farther away, to try to avoid exposure to PCC’s contaminants in the neighborhood.”

After buying their “fixer house” in 2007, Taevs and her husband planted fruit trees, berries, flowers, bushes, built a large chicken coop and more.

“Now, plaintiff Taevs’ dreams and her ability to use and enjoy her property have been dashed by PCC’s contamination of the property and the legitimate concerns she has about health impacts from that pollution,” the complaint states. “The pleasure that plaintiff Taevs had in creating and maintaining a beautiful and bountiful home has been reduced, and she has ceased engaging in outdoor gardening.”

To support its contentions, the lawsuit cites a moss study released in February showing that the air near the plant contains elevated levels of arsenic and nickel. However, in a statement provided in March to the Portland Tribune, the company denied using arsenic in its manufacturing process, and insists that it uses only nickel of a low toxicity.

In March, the Tribune reported that data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment confirmed nickel is found in the neighborhood near the Precision Castparts plant.

The Tribune also reported that the EPA found that a carcinogenic form of chromium also is in the neighborhood’s air, and that the nickel and chromium are likely to cause a measurable increase in the number of cancer cases over the next 70 years in the neighborhood surrounding the plant.

The EPA database does not mention Precision Castparts as a source of arsenic. However, the lawsuit claims that “PCC’s own records demonstrate that it emits nickel, arsenic, chromium, and other toxic materials and heavy metals into the air.”

The July 8 lawsuit notes that moss has been used as a “bioindicator” of air quality for decades. “Lacking roots, moss absorbs nutrients and water from the air around it, including any pollutants that are present,” it says. “The moss incorporates these contaminants into itself as it grows, making a record of pollution in the surrounding air over time.”

In 2013, the U.S. Forest Service began an effort to track air quality across Portland by collecting moss in trees.

Three year later, the USFS released its moss data which, among other things, showed that there is a significant air pollution hotspot surrounding PCC’s industrial complex on Harney Street.

The July lawsuit says no other source of nickel exists in the vicinity of the nickel hotspot.

The complaint states that “prolonged exposure to the pollutants emitted from PCC is potentially catastrophic to human health.” It says people are exposed to the pollution via skin contact and inhalation, with the ingestion of contaminated soils and dust, and with the consumption of produce grown within the plume of contamination.

“Because PCC’s emissions not only contaminate the air, but also contaminate the soil, grass, plants and homes throughout the community, people living in this neighborhood continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of hazardous pollutants on a daily basis,” the suit alleges. “Thus, even if PCC ceased its South Portland Operations today, plaintiffs’ and class members’ properties would remain contaminated,” and would “continue to be exposed to these contaminants.”

Inhalation of arsenic has been shown to be strongly associated with lung cancer, while ingestion of inorganic arsenic by humans has been linked to a form of skin cancer and also to bladder, liver and lung cancer, the EPA says.

In addition to cancer, nickel inhalation can cause adverse impacts on the immune system, as well as pulmonary effects, including asthma, bronchitis, and limited lung function. Oral ingestion of nickel may cause adverse reproductive and developmental effects.

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