In March 2018, a five-alarm fire sent a plume of toxic, oily smoke billowing above an auto scrapyard in the Northeast Portland neighborhood of Cully.
Environmental regulators and Portland Fire & Rescue evacuated at least 145 residents of nearby homes and apartments as the fire raged ("Hot Rods," WW, July 4, 2018). Nearly three years later, residents who lost everything haven't seen a penny of compensation.
The firm that operated the scrapyard, NW Metals, owes the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality $59,015 in civil penalties for the fire and more than $85,000 for cleanup costs. The company is contesting both in separate legal actions.
But NW Metals could soon be back in business: Last August, company secretary Moyata "Mo" Anotta filed for a five-year DEQ air contaminant discharge permit that could be issued any day.
His new location? Nine miles west at the northwest edge of St. Johns. The new scrapyard, at 9537 N Columbia Blvd., is just one block from a Portland city park.
Environmental activists are outraged. They say Anotta, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, has thumbed his nose at state regulators with no consequence.
"If DEQ does give permit to NW Metals after NW Metals hasn't paid a cent in fines or damages, what message does that send?" asks Joel Iboa, executive director of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, which focuses on environmental justice. "To me, it says you can do harm and there's nothing anyone can do about it. That's unacceptable."
DEQ spokeswoman Lauren Wirtis says the agency is fully aware of Anotta's history, but its hands are tied: The agency can only judge whether he has fully and accurately completed the application for the permit he now seeks.
Wirtis also notes that Anotta is appealing DEQ's previous enforcement actions against his company, so the alleged violations have not been proven.
"DEQ understands the community's concern regarding this facility's history of noncompliance and, if a permit is granted, DEQ will use the regulatory tools at its disposal to ensure ongoing compliance," Wirtis says.
That pledge doesn't satisfy the community, including Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), who submitted public comment urging DEQ not to issue NW Metals' permit, and environmental groups who want the agency to exercise what they believe is its statutory authority to deny the permit.
"There are so many times I've come up against this—where it appears that DEQ has authority but they never exercise it," says Mary Peveto, executive director of Neighbors for Clean Air.
Scrapping cars is a dirty business. When junkers arrive at NW Metals, they're full of motor oil, antifreeze, transmission fluid, gasoline and other toxic liquids. The upholstery, plastic and other nonmetal vehicle parts—called "fluff" in the trade—get yanked out and heaped into piles that can be flammable. There are tires everywhere. Add a metal-shearing shredder that throws off heat and sparks, and a scrapyard is ripe for disaster.
Mark Riskedahl, director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center at Lewis & Clark Law School, has long paid close attention to the cottage industry of auto scrapping in North and Northeast Portland. He says in 20 years of tracking polluters in the metro area, he's never encountered anyone as determined and unrepentant as Anotta.
Following the 2018 fire, DEQ fined Anotta for violating environmental laws and ordered him to apply for a permit for his shredder. Meanwhile, the cleanup at NW Metals proceeded so slowly that in November 2019, DEQ obtained an injunction against the company in Multnomah County Circuit Court because "sufficient progress towards compliance has not been made and NW Metals continues to pose a threat to public and environmental health and safety."
"He's just a really bad actor," says Peveto. "I have never seen somebody so willfully dismissive of any responsibility to the community and to regulators."
Jonah Sandford, a lawyer at Northwest Environmental Defense Center, says Oregon statutes gives DEQ all the power it needs to head off another conflagration: ORS 468.070 says, "At any time, the Department of Environmental Quality may refuse to issue…any permit."
The law then goes on to list circumstances under which DEQ may deny them, including "violation of any applicable rule, standard or order of the Environmental Quality Commission," the body that directs DEQ.
But Wirtis explains that prior to the fire, NW Metals operated—albeit improperly—without a DEQ permit. Therefore, it had no permit to violate. And as for DEQ's other findings, they are still tied up in court.
In fact, Wirtis says she can find no record that the agency has ever refused an applicant an air quality permit "when the facility was able to comply with environmental regulations. 'Deny,' in this context, means that it went through the entire public process and DEQ denied it."
Iboa says the agency's track record of permit approvals is unfortunate, particularly for people of color and those with low incomes, because they disproportionately live near industrial facilities. NW Metals proposes to move from Cully, one of Portland's poorest neighborhoods, to St. Johns, another low-income neighborhood. The new operation will be located near two high-poverty schools.
Anotta, who is Black, agrees racial justice is an issue when it comes to his permit—but he's got a different angle. In a petition he presented DEQ as part of the public comment period, Anotta accused critics and DEQ of "systemic racism" for treating his operation differently than white-owned scrappers.
Iboa says that's a distraction from the risks NW Metals poses.
"For him to say he's being judged unfairly, that doesn't align with the larger question of his taking responsibility in the community," Iboa says.
Ultimately, however, says Iboa, who also chairs Gov. Kate Brown's Environmental Justice Task Force, it is the state's responsibility to safeguard its citizens and the environment.
"At the end of day, the role of DEQ is to protect the health of Oregonians," Iboa says. "If you do harm, you should be held accountable."