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ESCO Steel — A legacy worth celebrating?


ESCO steel reported $849 million in global sales in 2010. This was enough to earn them lavish praise from local business journalist Richard Read, who suggests that companies like ESCO form an under-appreciated but decidedly manly backbone for Portland’s “weird” economy. One of ESCO’s plants is actually five blocks from Chapman elementary in Northwest Portland – close enough to show the kids what ‘real jobs’ look like. And also close enough to be the top source of its air pollution, catapulting it into the top 5% of schools with the greatest exposure to hazardous air toxins.

As it turns out, thirty five Portland-area schools are in the top 5% of national schools with the most dangerous exposure to air toxins. And for all seven schools in Northwest Portland, the #1 source of pollution was ESCO Steel. The Department of Environmental Quality has a cozy relationship with ESCO, as it does with all the agencies it “regulates” – in exchange for issuing their pollution permits, they provide DEQ with roughly 70% of its funding. So initially the DEQ worked alongside ESCO to downplay this information. They were later forced to backtrack, and in 2010, even DEQ’s Andy Ginsberg asserted that for people who live near the ESCO foundry, its emissions amount for 95% of all toxic compounds in the air they breathe.

Can we learn to subtract the health effects of this pollution? I sure as hell can. But until ESCO pays for them, they are essentially stealing from us – taking away our health and then bankrupting us with medical bills. Sort of like a mugging, but on an industrial scale. And the magnitude of this becomes much greater when we investigate what ESCO is making that requires all this pollution.

ESCO has recently become heavily invested in tar sands extractioncoal mining, and fracking for natural gas, and is staking its future on building vital, “mission-critical” enabling equipment for all three – particularly drill bits which wear out quickly and need frequent replacement. In a report to the SEC they even brag that they “… have established direct sales channels in the Canadian oil sands, Wyoming Powder River Basin and Brazil,”, the former two being perhaps the most controversial energy extraction sites in North America.

Tar sands extraction is the perfect example of the kind of hideously immoral project that will lock us in to an unlivable future, offering a few paltry construction jobs while unraveling the ecosystems on which entire industries and living communities depend. Tar oil is three times more carbon intensive than traditional oil, and the extraction process alone is so energy intensive that it apparently requires a small nuclear reactor. The easily corroded Keystone Pipeline that is being planned to move tar sands to Texas is being planned over the Ogallala aquifer – one of the largest and most important fresh-water aquifers in the country, supplying 1/3rd of the country’s water for irrigation, as well as drinking water for 82% of the people who live nearby. There have already been spills in places like Kalamazoo, and we have evidence that Transcanada laid defective pipe in Texas. What happens to our farmers and our food when Transcanada decide rates to “build jobs here”? According to NASA’s James Hansen, it means “game over”.

All of this has led to significant civil disobedience, both from First Nations in Canada and the cultural mainstream in Canada and the States, including hundreds of die-ins, blockades, tree-sits, and lock-ins. The actions of the Idle No More movement in Canada, along with the boldness exhibited by blockaders in rural Texas, have even inspired the Sierra Club to lift its historic opposition to direct action – its executive director was arrested yesterday with 47 other people, protesting the Keystone Pipeline.

And let’s not forget the Powder River Basin – the source of $1 / ton coal that coal companies are desperately trying to sell to China with rushed terminals in Oregon and Washington. If these terminals aren’t built, the coal will very likely stay in the ground. And this is critical, because according to the Sight line Institute, the carbon impact of American coal burned in China would be greater than the Keystone pipeline. In other words, double game over. So let’s pray that ESCO never gets any business in the Powder River Basin. And then let’s answer our own prayers.

The community should be angry that a local company is playing such a key role in melting the planet and destabilizing its life-support systems. Its workers should be angry that their managers have staked their livelihood on producing for industries that are destroying the world they grew up in, and which might not be around in a few years. And investors should think twice before throwing money at a company that is angering locals while slapping the word “innovation” on the fossil-fuel industry. In their own report to the SEC, the company even frets about the “substantial costs” they would face if greenhouse gases were regulated. To everyone else in the world, it would be a very great relief.

We need to start telling our own story about ESCO, about how they treat this city, how they treat their workers, and how they need to change. We can tell ESCO that what they are doing is not welcome in our city, and that we do not accept profiting off of runaway climate change or other threats to public health. And perhaps most importantly, we can engage their workers, and ask those workers what workplace democracy at ESCO might look like. We can start by joining 402 people who are asking ESCO to restore health insurance to an employee they wrongfully fired last year after 39 years at the company, which is depriving his wife of cancer treatments.

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