Kmart Fire Sends Chunks of Asbestos Flying Around East Portland

A local park is closed and people are advised to stay out of gardens and stop mowing lawns.

Chunks of blackened debris and dust that fell on the Argay Terrace neighborhood after a vacant Kmart went up in flames there Wednesday morning contain asbestos, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality warns.

Debris found at Luuwit View Park just south of the gutted Kmart tested positive for the carcinogen, DEQ said in a press release that went out at 9:30 pm Thursday. Luuwit View Park is closed, and the regular weekday Free Lunch + Play session is canceled. The Parkrose School District has told administrators to keep all activities indoors.

“The public should take steps to protect themselves from the potentially hazardous material,” DEQ says. “Debris will look like ash, paper, or chunks, and easily crumbles into fibers that can be inhaled. Do not touch, pick up, move, sweep, or vacuum any ash or debris that may have come from the fire. Keep children and pets away from ash and debris.”

People should stay out of any gardens that were exposed, DEQ says, and shouldn’t mow lawns.

Black chunks of insulation the size of Frisbees landed in the Hidden Oaks apartment complex just east of the Kmart. Luuwit View Park is just southeast of Hidden Oaks. The area is home to several schools. Parkrose High School and Middle School are west across Northeast 122nd Avenue from the Kmart. Shaver Elementary is just south of Luuwit View Park.

“The stuff is everywhere,” Argay Terrace resident Sharon Chin says. “Everyone is just floored. We all want to know how it’s going to get cleaned up. The next question after that is who pays for it.”

Dr. Teresa Everson, interim health officer at Multnomah County, said it is unlikely that anyone has been exposed to dangerous amounts of asbestos so far. “We would not expect the general public to have significant exposure at this time,” Everson said on a conference call with journalists.

The empty Kmart is owned by RFC Joint Venture, a limited liability company controlled by Zygmunt Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer who also owns the Minnesota Vikings football team. Wilf’s company has leased the land to Prologis, a San Francisco-based shipping firm, to build a freight warehouse. Argay Terrace residents have been fighting the plan, saying that the warehouse would bring more diesel-spewing trucks into a neighborhood that’s already plagued by them.

The vast, 13-acre site has been decaying since 2018, when the Kmart closed. In 2021, it was the site of a brawl between anti-fascists and far-right Proud Boys, fought with paintball guns and baseball bats. (One of the participants in that fight, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, was handed a 95-month sentence today.)

Regulators have approved a demolition permit for the building, but Prologis is waiting for its building permit to be approved before pulling it, Prologis spokeswoman Mattie Sorrentino said in an email.

The cost of cleaning up debris from the fire will fall to Prologis and to the property’s owner, according to Richard Franklin, on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“It could be one or both,” Franklin said on the conference call with journalists.

On the same call, Prologis spokeswoman Jennifer Nelson said that the company had already deployed cleanup personnel in the area. A spokesman for Wilf’s company, Garden Homes, didn’t return an email seeking comment.

Wilf’s family has owned the Kmart site under various entities since the mid-1980s, a Garden Homes spokesman confirmed to WW last year. Wilf took over Garden Homes from his father, Joseph, who started it with his brother in 1954 to build single-family houses. A Garden Homes subsidiary, Garden Commercial Properties, manages 25 million square feet of retail and office space.

“The city is working closely with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Health Authority, Environmental Protection Agency, Multnomah County, and others to help address this,” a spokesman for Mayor Ted Wheeler said in an email. “We’ll follow up when we have more information.”

Portland Fire & Rescue has yet to determine a cause of the fire, spokesman Rick Graves said. Public records show a nuisance complaint against the property on July 6. “Complaint received,” the record says. “Building open to entry.”

The fire bureau said Wednesday that the building has been used as an “unauthorized shelter.” The owner had tried to thwart trespassers by putting up 8-foot cyclone fencing, the bureau said. It had put concrete barriers in the entrances to the parking lot to keep vehicles out, too.

“This fencing and concrete block barrier made the initial access for PF&R a challenge,” the bureau said in a statement. “Firefighters cut through locks on the fence and used a winch to move some barriers to gain access to the parking lot to establish positions for the defensive fire attack.”

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