PIR controversy: leaded exhaust, noise rankle neighbors (August 2023)

A recent London-based Guardian newspaper investigative story singled out the Kenton neighborhood as having some of the worst racetrack-produced lead fumes in any residential area in the U.S.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned leaded gas for passenger cars in 1996 because of the health hazard, especially for young children. But the law exempted racecars. The EPA continued to pressure the motorsports industry and NASCAR, the largest racecar organization in the country, finally stopped using leaded fuel in 2007.

The Guardian identified more than a dozen major tracks in the U.S. where leaded gas is often used. Most of those tracks are in remote areas away from cities, with the conspicuous exception of Portland International Raceway (PIR) that nearly abuts the Kenton, Portsmouth and Piedmont neighborhoods. 

PIR is owned by Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R), a rare publicly owned track in an industry dominated by private ownership. It’s an irony considering Portland’s renown as one of America’s greenest cities. A 2021 United Nation’s Environment Program report reinforced long-standinghealth concerns stating, “leaded petrol causes heart disease, stroke and cancer. It also affects the development of the human brain, especially harming children, with studies suggesting it reduced IQ by 5-10 points.”

Racecars at Portland International Raceway
Race cars at Portland International Raceway owned by Portland Parks

The Guardian newspaper cited a Cornell University and Indiana University study showing children living as much as 25 miles from a race track can be affected by its lead emissions. Leaded fumes would not have to travel far to reach neighbors. It’s about .9 mile to downtown Kenton, 1.2 miles to Piedmont and 1.3 miles to Arbor Lodge. The University Park, St. Johns and Cathedral Park neighborhoods are all within three miles.

The gas exhaust particularly endangers families, said Kenton Neighborhood Association chair Terrance Moses, who explained that the closest areas to PIR are lower income and many families don’t have air conditioning. “When they open their windows on hot summer days, the leaded gas fumes can come right in,” he said.

PP&R’s response to The Guardian story was, “Our highest priority is public safety by following the guidance of public health and environmental protection agencies.”

And therein lies the controversy. Which public health agencies and which standards?

The United Nations, U.S. Center for Disease Control and the EPA are unequivocal in stating that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. The city has traditionally based its position on a 2017 study that tested lead levels during a PIR race event. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality subsequently analyzed that data to estimate emissions in residential areas and concluded “levels of lead emission modeled did not pose immediate health risks to residential areas around the track.” 

“We know enough about lead, to know that’s not true,” said Kristy Lanciotti, a Kenton resident and OHSU School of Nursing assistant professor, who is an environmental health specialist.

“Lead isn’t just a problem for neighbors immediately next to the track while the race is going on,” she said. “Lead travels long distances and it doesn’t go away, it accumulates in the soils and affects kids,” said Lanciotti, herself a mother of two young children.

PIR Manager Ron Huegli and PP&R spokesperson Mark Ross did not respond to information requests before the North Peninsula Review deadline.

PIR annually generates about $2 million in gross revenue and most years makes a slight profit enabling it to contribute about $35,000 annually to the North Portland Trust Fund for Kenton-area community grants. Race events also contribute between $35 million and $45 million to the area economy. Race-goers’ spending at local hotels and restaurants helps provide employment for low-wage hospitality workers.

PIR noise issue flares up again

While the leaded gas controversy is relatively new, a related issue over PIR noise is decades long and heating up.

Marty Knowles has lived on north side of Kenton for 13 years. “In all my time here, whenever I’ve complained about the noise, PIR has always responded, “Hey, we’re in compliance. The problem is they might be in compliance with their required 103/05 decimal measurements at trackside, but that often means they exceed the maximum 65 decibels limit in neighborhoods.” Knowles then took a cell phone showing a photo of a hand-held noise monitor displaying repeated instances of track noise at his home registering 71.3 or higher.

But Knowles and other noise critics take hope in actions by Mary Sipe, chair of the PIR subcommittee of the influential city Noise Control Board. Sipe is preparing several challenges to PIR. Motivating her is the belief that “loud noise isn’t merely an annoyance, it’s a health hazard and there’s an abundance of proof showing that.”

Sipe’s first priority is restarting the 2008 Greenbusch Study on North Portland noise pollution. It found that PIR noise likely exceeded 65 decibels in much of Kenton and frequently reached 75 decibels. The report was never completed. Sipe thinks that was a fateful mistake because completed research would have shown that “PIR’s assertion that 105 decibels at track side and 65 decibels in the neighborhood are safe, has never been verified.” 

Sipe wants to repair and relocate the city’s one neighborhood noise meter that is now broken. She would like to install two more. She also plans to ask PP&R to analyze which of its motorsports events have lowest participation, attendance and revenue. Those events could be eliminated, reducing both noise and leaded exhaust.

She’s set to bring these proposals to the Noise Control Board subcommittee meeting in September. PIR Manager, Ron Huegli, and former Manager, Mark Wigginton, sit on that panel. Sipe wants to then take the proposals to the Noise Control Board, top PP&R managers, new Parks Commissioner Dan Ryan, and if need be, to the City Council.

“Mary’s a bulldog—I love her,” said Knowles, who serves on the same panel. 

Sipe hopes to present the Noise Control Board-approved recommendations to PP&R by early next year