Construction crews are racing to complete the rehabilitation of Harriet Tubman Middle School for its reopening this fall, despite long-standing concerns about the air quality at the site. Now a new environmental study offers damning conclusions about the health risks to students from diesel fumes, even as state officials champion a nearby highway project.

It contains a remarkable warning: don't let Tubman students play outside.

"Recommendation #1: student outdoor activities be limited at Harriet Tubman Middle School,  especially during high traffic periods," says the 66-page report.

For advocates of reopening the school, a move championed by leaders of the black community, including state Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland), in whose district the school sits, the new information is disturbing.

"That's a pretty stunning comment," Frederick said when WW read him the scientist's recommendation.

Since Tubman's playground is at 2231 N Flint Ave., only a short Frisbee toss from Interstate 5, there is never really a time during the school day that isn't a "high-traffic period." More than 100,000 vehicles rumble past the school every day, including nearly 18,000 diesel-powered trucks, which operate under the West Coast's weakest diesel emission standards.

Now the Oregon Department of Transportation proposes to spend $450 million adding an auxiliary lane and shoulder to both north- and southbound I-5 adjacent to Tubman—a capacity expansion that would bring traffic even closer to the school.

One of the PSU scientists who conducted the new air quality study says widening I-5 would have predictable results on air quality at Tubman.

"It's very reasonable to expect concentrations would be higher and extend further into the property," says Linda A. George, a PSU professor of environmental sciences.

The tangled racial and political history of the historically black neighborhoods near the Rose Quarter complicate the highway department's desire to lay down new pavement.

Opponents of the I-5 widening, organized as a group called "No More Freeway Expansions," hope to leverage the poor air quality at Tubman to block the project, which is currently in an environmental assessment phase.

"They didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the air quality at Tubman," says Chris Smith, a transit activist and member of No More Freeways. "That was maybe a mistake, and we'll challenge them on that."

Traffic in Portland’s Rose Quarter (Daniel Stindt)
Traffic in Portland’s Rose Quarter (Daniel Stindt)

The Rose Quarter I-5 expansion is ostensibly a congestion-reduction project aimed at relieving the stop-and-go traffic that chokes the freeway as it passes through Portland. (ODOT concedes that even if the project proceeds, congestion would return to current levels by 2027.)

Transportation department spokesman Don Hamilton says the agency's own environmental assessment of the project will be released later this year, but even in the most favorable scenario, the project wouldn't get built for several years.

The highway has a checkered history. In 1964, ODOT pushed I-5 through the heart of Portland's black community, destroying more than 300 homes and severing numerous through streets in the process.

The opening of Harriet Tubman Middle School in 1982 was meant to mitigate some of the damage and the historical shortchanging of black students in Portland Public Schools. But in 2007, PPS converted Tubman to an all-girls academy for grades 6 through 12. And under financial pressure, the district closed Tubman entirely in 2012.

As PPS enrollment grew in recent years, the Portland School Board recognized a shift to K-8 schools had failed and also wanted to address the gentrification that had bleached the neighborhoods around Tubman white. At the urging of black community leaders, the board voted last fall to reopen Tubman as a middle school in fall 2018.

It made that decision even though a 2009 study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency had identified poor air quality at Tubman.

PSU's new testing underlined that earlier finding. It found levels of arsenic and three petroleum byproducts—acrolein, benzene and naphthalene—that come from vehicle exhausts well in excess of local safety guidelines. Arsenic readings were more than four times Oregon's ambient benchmark concentrations and naphthalene's were six times.

"I expected that result," says Paul Anthony, the School Board member in whose district Tubman falls. "I would have been surprised if they'd said anything else. We know the air quality is terrible."

William Lambert, an epidemiologist the district hired to consult on the Tubman project, says it's important to place the air quality in context. The toxic substances emanating from I-5 pose threats to all neighborhoods near the freeway, Lambert notes, not just to Tubman.

To address the findings, the school district is spending $12.5 million on a new roof and a state-of-the art HVAC system, which will draw air in at the farthest point on Tubman's property and then filter it to eliminate toxics.

"PPS has put together a plan to reduce those exposures way down," says Lambert. Although the air on the playground will still be awful, inside, students will breathe the cleanest air kids living near the school are likely to encounter.

"Tubman is possibly the only school in the U.S. with a system this effective," Lambert says.

Opponents of the highway expansion aren't satisfied by the fix. They say the best way to improve the air quality on Tubman's playground and throughout the neighborhood is to implement congestion pricing and reduce traffic through highway tolling. Computer modeling shows that depending on where tolls are placed on Interstates 5 and 205, they could reduce current traffic and emissions by more than 10 percent.

An ODOT advisory committee evaluating various tolling configurations completed its final meeting last week. One problem elected officials are grappling with: Tolling is regressive ("For Whom the Road Tolls," WW, July 12, 2017). It hits low-income drivers hardest, and in Portland could penalize the underserved minority residents whom Tubman was opened to serve—and is being reopened to benefit.

Frederick and Anthony say 21st-century officials are wrestling with their predecessors' mistakes.

"I think what you are seeing is the result of bad decisions in the past," Frederick says. "The people who made the decisions aren't around to be held accountable. So folks are trying to solve problems they didn't create."