Portland Officials Didn’t Complete a Promised Report on Home Demolitions. So a Watchdog is Suing.

He wants to know how they fared at preventing the spread of lead dust.

Sean Green volunteered to help Portland City Hall prevent toxic lead dust from drifting across neighborhoods during home demolitions. So he looked forward to the new year—and the release of a report saying how the city had fared.

But that report never came. So Green is suing.

On Jan. 7, Green filed a legal action in Multnomah County Circuit Court, demanding bureaucrats tell the City Council how they fared at preventing lead contamination during home demolitions.

When Portland city commissioners passed a landmark ordinance regulating the demolition of single-family homes in 2018, they demanded that the Bureau of Development Services report back on the new effort to guard against lead and asbestos contamination.

The council required BDS to check in by Jan. 1, 2020.

Green's legal action, called a writ of mandamus, asks a judge to compel the city to follow its own ordinance—and report how the first 18 months of regulation worked out.

"There is some fundamental lack of understanding about what the expectations are around the ordinance," says Green, a contractor and volunteer on the city's Development Review Advisory Committee.

Green "has tried every way he knows how to get BDS to do the right thing," says his attorney, Alan Kessler. "BDS doesn't seem interested in meeting their legal obligation. Our only recourse is to go to court."

Kessler, who successfully sued the city last year over its failure to properly account for how much it charged for copies of public records, wants a judge to compel the bureau to immediately schedule a City Council hearing and monitor the impact of the regulation.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees the bureau, did not respond to a request for comment.

Reporting to the City Council might require the bureau to compile statistics on those demolitions and how many inspectors actually witnessed. What's at stake in Green's lawsuit could be a precise measurement of how BDS enforces the new rule. As WW revealed in November ("Dust in the Wind," Nov. 13, 2019), the bureau broadly interpreted the requirement that city inspectors be on site during demolitions.

Related: Portland Has Broken Its Promise to Keep Neighborhoods Safe From Demolition Contaminants

That means, by its own estimate, BDS was present at as few as 20 percent of demolitions when contractors actually had machinery running to tear down a building.

Bureau officials say they don't have a more precise estimate since WW's November story and won't comment on the legal action. But those officials now tell WW they've come up with a way to ensure they're on site for demolitions from now on.

Inspections must now be scheduled by contractors before work begins. It's unclear why the bureau didn't require this before.

"One change has already been implemented," says spokesman Ken Ray. "BDS notified active demolition permit holders on Dec. 3, informing them they should request a BDS inspection prior to commencing mechanical demolition."

BDS still hasn't figured out how to ensure contractors are dousing homes with water as they demolish them. (Rays says BDS is examining a couple of options for monitoring demolitions remotely.) Water prevents dust from spreading during demolition.

Lead is a neurotoxin, which can lead to permanent brain damage, and lead dust can spread as far as 100 yards during a demolition. Green says that’s reason enough to compel BDS to show their work in reducing such dust.
“I’ve been working incredibly hard on this demolition issue,” he tells WW. “I’ve gone all in because I’m really interested in making a difference.”