When a former Kmart building in a vacant lot at Northeast 122nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard went up in flames Wednesday, residents of the surrounding Parkrose and Argay Terrace neighborhoods were concerned. In addition to the thick, black smoke billowing above the area, neighbors reported finding large chunks of ash in their gardens and nearby Luuwit View Park. Confirming their fears was a notice released last night by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) informing residents that asbestos contamination had been found in debris from the fire.
"Charred pieces and heavy dust from the fire...were found in area yards and on Parkrose School District property. Debris at Luuwit View Park has already been tested and identified as containing asbestos," the DEQ notice states. "State, federal and community partners share concerns about protecting the public health of those who live, work, and play nearby."
The DEQ has issued guidelines for people to protect themselves from the "potentially hazardous material," asking those who live in the affected area to avoid touching debris and halt yard work for the time being. Activities at Luuwit View Park were canceled and summer school students at Parkrose schools were required to stay inside.
But with Parkrose and Argay-Terrace residents already facing some of the worst air quality in the state—which they fear will worsen with the construction of a new diesel freight warehouse at the 122nd and Sandy site where the fire took place—Northeast Portlanders say it's another example of negligence for their health and quality of life.
Angela Baker is a Parkrose resident who has long been voicing her concerns about air quality in the Parkrose and Argay-Terrace neighborhoods to government officials. She said on the day of the fire, neighbors were left wondering what to do.
"We didn't really get any guidance from anybody that first day," Baker told the Mercury. She said Multnomah County sent an initial alert to shelter in place during the fire, which was cleared after the flames were put out, but didn't hear anything about how she and fellow community members should protect themselves from debris. She saw neighbors in community groups on Facebook posting photos of ash in their gardens, seeking advice about what to do.
"[People were asking], 'Is it safe for me to use my garden since there's ash all over my plants? Can I eat the veggies out of my garden? If I disturb the ash, am I blowing asbestos around me? Are my chickens ok? Can I let my dog out?'" Baker said. "We didn't have any answers."
Baker said one of Portland Commissioner Carmen Rubio's staffers alerted community members last night about the Oregon DEQ notice, and she started sharing the information with others. Baker said while she's grateful for the new information, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
Susan Mills, an Oregon DEQ public affairs specialist, told the Mercury that specialists are on site assessing the situation, and the DEQ will set up a webpage with more information by the end of today—hopefully with a plan for protection and cleanup. Mills said experts don't know how much of the ash and debris from the fire contains asbestos, so they're urging caution right now, advising people to water their lawn to keep ash from becoming airborne and keep their kids and dogs from playing in the yard.
"These are all safety tips and they're just for the purpose of being extra cautious. I don't have a timeline on [when the area will be safe]," Mills said. "As we test material and understand the scope, we will have more information available."
Asbestos is a mineral that was commonly used as a fire-retardant and insulant in buildings during the mid-20th century before its health risks were known. Baker said she and other community members have suspected there was asbestos at the Kmart building since before the fire occurred, and were keeping an eye on how the city would deal with it when demolishing the building for the future freight warehouse.
Baker is a member of the Parkrose-Argay Opportunity Coalition, a group formed to advocate against the freight warehouse plan—set to be operated by real estate logistics company Prologis—and support a "better plan for the old Kmart site." The group says a freight warehouse at the site will worsen diesel pollution already present in the area and make the streets more dangerous for vulnerable community members, especially students at nearby Parkrose School District campuses.
Members of the coalition say they were set to meet with Prologis and Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Development Services, last spring. But they say Rubio's staff canceled that appointment, and before the next one was scheduled, Prologis signed a lease with the site's property owner, Garden Homes—even though the city hadn't completed environmental permitting on the site. Rubio's office maintains they didn't cancel and reschedule a meeting with coalition members.
Advocates from the coalition have found an ally in Oregon Rep. Thuy Tran (D-Portland), whose district includes outer Northeast Portland. In an interview with the Mercury in May, Tran said she has seen how difficult it's been for residents there to communicate with the city and property owners.
"Despite organized opposition from thousands of community members, students, the school board, and elected officials, the city keeps saying their hands are tied," Tran said. "So who's responsible?"
Baker said the recent fire and resulting contaminants are yet another example of how the vacant Kmart site has been a place of "repeated trauma" for the community. In addition to the environmental concerns, the lot saw a violent and notorious Proud Boys brawl in 2021, which Portland police didn't interfere in.
"This cycle of trauma needs to stop. Prologis needs to be stopped from coming in, and the community needs a chance to heal," Baker said, adding that coalition members have advocated for the site to be used as a community health center or educational facility, instead of a diesel freight warehouse.
"Portland City Council has an opportunity to bring healing to the community," Baker said. "And that's not happening."