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Picture of NW Metals auto scrap yard on Columbia Drive in Portland.
NW Metals auto scrap yard on Columbia Drive in North Portland is seeking air quality permit to operate auto shredder. | Credit: Nathan Isaacs

St. Johns — The auto scrap yard responsible for a five-alarm fire that destroyed homes, killed countless pets and prompted evacuation orders in the Cully neighborhood in 2018 has now set up shop in North Portland.  

NW Metals is now asking the Oregon DEQ to approve an air quality permit for it to operate its metal shredder at the new location at 9537 N. Columbia Blvd.

The new location is across from Chimney and Pier parks, less than a mile from Sitton Elementary. It is also sandwiched between two existing scrap yards, which NW Metals’ Secretary and Manager Mo Anotta says is an important detail.

DEQ has held two virtual public hearings to discuss the permit request and health risk assessment summary. The first was on Dec. 12 and was attended by 28 people. The second was on Dec. 15 and attended by 62 people, according to DEQ. 

DEQ has now extended the public comment period for the permit until 5 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Screenshot of how to provide comments to DEQ regarding NW Metals’ air quality permit request

Already, more than 2,700 people have signed a Change.org petition opposing the permit request. On January 4th, the St. Johns Neighborhood Association submitted a letter urging DEQ to reject the permit

Scrap Yard Double Standards?

As we’ve mentioned, NW Metals’ Anotta said they are being held to a standard that isn’t required by the two similar scrap yards on either side of him. He also questions whether race is a factor. He said NW Metals is a minority-owned business. 

“And if you really look at the law, we’re not even required to have that permit,” Anotta said. “But they are the government, so they do whatever they want. We’re a minority-owned business. And we’re the only one that has been required to obtain that permit in the state of Oregon. And yet there were three other white-owned businesses. One of them is right next door to us. And the other one is like a quarter mile away from us. They don’t even have that permit nor have they even done a risk assessment. And they’d been in business for over 20 years and we’ve been in business for less than five years. So that should kind of give you an idea of what is really going on.”

He shared with NOPO This Week his own petition of more than a 100 people from around North Portland who were asking DEQ to end the process and issue the permit. He emphasizes that they are local signatures, which is not true of the Change.org petition. He also shared an endorsement letter from Going Home II, a nonprofit group that helps people in jail and prison transition back into the community.

One of several pages of petition signatures from North Portland residents supporting NW Metals air quality permit request. | Credit: NW Metals

Anotta also shared an email that he had obtained and that was sent from Neighbors For Cleaner Air outlining steps residents should take to oppose the permit. He says the environmental argument being made by these groups is misleading since the other scrap yards have been operating at the site for decades.  

Over the last two years, NW Metals has challenged DEQ requirements and penalties, all of which have been upheld in court. As DEQ stated in a November 2019 timeline entry, “Sufficient progress towards compliance has not been made and NW Metals continues to pose a threat to public and environmental health and safety.”

Once the comment period is over, DEQ will evaluate and respond to all comments received and will determine if any revisions to the draft permit documents are required, said Lauren Wirtis, a Public Affairs Specialist at DEQ, in an email to NOPO This Week.

After that, DEQ can then issue the permit as proposed, revise and issue the permit, or revise the permit and put it back out for public comment.

“A Massive Fire

There was no exact cause of the fire determined, according to DEQ. 

But to get a sense of the fire, read Willamette Week’s July 2018 comprehensive article about it and the regulatory and other factors that led up to it. In the piece, authors Rachel Monahan and Aaron Mesh write, “It took 30 fire engines and 170 firefighters—a quarter of the city’s force—to put the fire out.”

The WW article also does a great job of explaining the business of auto scrap yards. 

Check out KOIN 6’s recap that evening. 

Preventing Another Fire

Despite the fire and NW Metal’s response to DEQ’s fines and clean up orders, “Historically, DEQ has not used past non-compliance as a basis to deny a permit,” Wirtis said in her email. “However, NW Metals’ compliance history will follow them to this new site, meaning that if there is a violation, it will be aggravated by the facility’s previous non-compliance history. They won’t start from a clean slate because they’re at a new location.”

And Wirtis said there are now “two important regulations in place that will prevent a similar situation or generally provide more control over the facility’s operations.” 

The first was a 2020 state law that changed regulations for DMV Auto-Dismantler license holders requiring a facility holding more than 100 waste tires to get a DEQ waste tire storage permit. Wirtis said that previously, the requirement had been for facilities holding more than 1,500 tires. 

One of the reasons the 2018 fire burned as long and as hot as it did was attributed to stacks and stacks of old tires at the property. 

Additionally, Wirtis said, in the process of applying for an air quality permit, NW Metals was required to go through Cleaner Air Oregon (CAO), DEQ’s air toxics program.

“CAO gives DEQ more tools to evaluate and, if necessary, regulate facilities to limit impacts to public health. For example, the operational limitations in NW Metals’ current draft permit (e.g., the shredder can run a maximum 8.5 hours per day) would not be possible without CAO,” she said.