A Pendleton school ranked as a toxic hot spot in a USA Today report examining air pollution outside schools. Local air quality experts, however, are skeptical.
Harris Junior Academy ended up in the 1st percentile of 127,800 public, private and parochial schools examined for the effects of industrial pollution on their outside air. The ranking means air outside the academy is allegedly worse than 99 percent of the nation's schools.
Sherwood Heights Elementary ranked in the 4th percentile, while McKay Creek Elementary, Lincoln Primary School and Pendleton High School ranked in the 6th percentile. West Hills Elementary and Sunridge Middle Schools were in the 7th percentile.
In Morrow County, students at Heppner Junior/Senior High School can take a deep collective breath. The school was ranked in the 98th percentile. The USA Today results have some Pendleton-area air quality experts reacting with incredulity.
"I'm having a hard time with this one," said Karen King, Pendleton's regulatory specialist.
If the study had targeted particulate from wood stoves, she said she'd have an easier time accepting the results, because Pendleton sits in a bowl that tends to trap airborne pollution. But industrial pollution is another story.
"They're saying we have all these toxins that I don't think we have," King said.
USA Today used an Environmental Protection Agency computer simulation model that predicts the path of toxic chemicals released by refineries and manufacturing plants.
The culprit in Harris Junior Academy's case, according to USA Today, is diicyanate, a chemical used to make polyurethane foam found in mattresses, furniture, pillows and automotive upholstery. Diicyanate, a potential carcinogen, also can cause asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The four "polluters" are Fleetwood (1.4 miles northwest of the school), Lipper Components (1.4 north-northwest), Umatilla Chemical Depot (34 miles west) and Boise Cascade in Wallula (31 miles north).
"It's an interesting study," said Greg Lande of Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality. "It's kind of cool that an entity outside the government took a shot at this."
Whether the results paint an accurate picture, he couldn't say with confidence.
Lande said industries are required to report how many tons of pollutants they release into the environment. The model considers 2005 emissions information from 20,000 industrial sites, plus weather factors, topography and other factors.
Tom Hack, DEQ air quality specialist in Pendleton, isn't buying the results.
"USA Today took information from EPA studies and made some incorrect assumptions," Hack said.
The closest two Pendleton companies listed as polluters, Hack said, aren't major users of diicyanate.
"Fleetwood uses a trace amount in its laminating facility," he said. "Lipper Components - there's no reason they'd have diicyanate."
The Umatilla Chemical Depot is known, he said, for intense monitoring of chemical emissions.
A facility report faxed from DEQ to the East Oregonian showed seven tons of fugitive emissions from Fleetwood, well below the allowed limit, and only trace amounts of diicyanate.
Lyle Larkin, Fleetwood's vice-president and treasurer, expressed consternation at the study.
"I really question their methodology," he said. "It appears they attempted to reach specific conclusions based on inexact information and methodology."
He said minor amounts of diicyanate are produced from glue vapors at the Pendleton plant. He challenged USA Today to measure actual air samples.
"We are confident there is no significant concentration of diicyanate being emitted into the air in Pendleton," Larkin said.
The USA Today story focused on an Ohio school, Hitchens Elementary, closed after a plastics plant across the street fouled the air. School officials made the decision after air samples showed levels of toxic chemicals 50 times higher than what Ohio's DEQ deems acceptable.
Seven Oregon schools had air ranking more toxic than Hitchens. Besides Harris Junior Academy, six Portland schools appeared on the list.
According to the study, the air outside Harris Junior Academy is likely worse at only 166 other schools across the nation.
A complete list of area schools appears at www.smokestack.usatoday.com.