Death by Economic Engine

Miki Barnes, LCSW
May 15, 2014

Air is essential to human life. The first breath heralds the beginning of an infant’s life while the last breath marks the end of an individual’s sojourn on this planet. It is now a common medical practice to encourage people to focus on their breath to calm anxiety, depression and stress. In short, the air we breathe promotes health and healing.

But what happens when this essential component of life becomes contaminated by chemicals and metals that trigger asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory disorders? When it becomes tainted with carcinogens that can have potentially fatal consequences? When it becomes polluted with toxins known to lower IQs and contribute to learning and behavioral problems including ADHD, autism, conduct disorder, and antisocial behaviors? When it increases the risk of miscarriages, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and a host of other illnesses? This is the quandary now facing Washington County residents, for recent studies have found air toxics in Hillsboro and the surrounding area to be in some places over 120 times above benchmark levels.[1] According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ), “Air toxics are pollutants associated with more serious health effects such as increased risk of cancer or respiratory damage.”[2]

As reported in a 10/17/13 release by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), “We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”[3]

The recently released U.S. National Climate Change Assessment also warns of the “disruptions of physical, biological, and ecological systems” in the absence of dramatic efforts to mitigate global warming. “Health effects of these disruptions include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food and waterborne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.”[4] The report further notes that rising temperatures are expected to lead to an increase in air pollution.

How did Washington County become so toxic? The answer in part is because this jurisdiction takes pride in the “economic engine” approach to development, especially when rationalizing tax breaks to Intel and other global corporate entities. But what exactly does this phrase mean? The term “engine” brings forth a number of connotations, foremost among them the association with fossil fuel dependent and other polluting activities linked with climate change and environmental degradation.

And what about the term “economic,” which is associated with money, financial systems, banks, etc? This combination of words - “economic” and “engine” - evokes the image of a “money making machine.” Sadly, it is this glorification of machines over the greater good that has now become one of the defining characteristics of many established policy-makers and business leaders in Washington County.

Those who subscribe to this model admit that there are “trade offs,” one of which appears to be responsible environmental stewardship, especially insofar as those who promote this model often expect to be absolved from considering environmental impacts in their misguided belief that job creation and generating profits should take precedence over clean air and water as well as the health and well-being of the community.

But why this obsessive striving to identify with an engine, a material object, a mere mechanical device bereft of heart and soul? After all, engines and machines are devoid of the capacity to think, reflect, feel, intuit and convey emotions. Engines cannot and do not express compassion, sympathy, empathy or love, nor do they have morals or ethics.

In the “economic engine” model, the degree to which an individual, business or corporation emulates an inanimate machine has been elevated to the highest good. In the process, directing public money towards more humane aspirations such as promoting educational excellence, environmental stewardship, the creative arts, and social service are dismissed in favor of fueling the insatiable demands of the money making machine.

The Hillsboro Airport (HIO) serves as a prime example of the “economic engine” model. This airport, with its preponderance of pilot training activity in aircraft that use leaded fuel, is the largest facility source of lead emissions in the entire state. But lead is by no means the only toxin spewed by these aircraft. The EPA’s 2011 National Emissions Inventory (NEI) reveals that HIO is also a major emitter of a number of other air toxics. Indeed, it is the number one facility source in Washington County of acrolein, 1,3 butadiene, ethyl benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, organic carbon particulate matter 2.5, elemental carbon particulate matter 2.5, and carbon monoxide. It is the second largest source of nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter 2.5 emissions and the third largest source of volatile organic compounds in this jurisdiction.[5]

Without an environmental impact study to take a hard look at the adverse impact of this airport on the community, and despite the toxic nature of the above listed pollutants, the Port of Portland is aggressively advocating for the construction of a publicly funded third runway, a project that will nearly double the capacity at this facility and many of the toxic emissions as well.

Yet, at best HIO is but a sputtering economic engine. The Port of Portland has acknowledged that in the more than 48 years it has owned and operated this facility, it has never generated a profit, and thus remains chronically dependent on government handouts. This inability of HIO to achieve self sustaining status is but one of the shortcomings that plague the economic engine model, as most of the corporations and politicians touting this approach often use it to justify seeking public subsidies and tax breaks into perpetuity.

In the final analysis, the economic engine model represents an archaic, outmoded paradigm - one that has done grave damage to this planet and continues to pose a threat not only to the immediate community, and in light of the far-reaching consequences of climate change, to the entire planet. Refusing to alter course by promoting a “business as usual” stance while stubbornly ignoring ominous warnings about the negative environmental and health impacts of maintaining the status quo is not a viable option. The future of this planet hinges on our ability to embrace new ideals and values that promote a firm commitment to restore and prioritize environmental protection as well as the health and well being of the global community for current and future generations.

The human spirit and the animating force coursing through the myriad life forms on this earth and beyond are far too vast, wondrous, and mysterious to be reduced to a concept as facile as an economic engine. Surely after several million years on this planet, the human species is capable of summoning from the depths of their collective imagination a far more uplifting, laudable, and praiseworthy aspiration - one that invokes a spirit of universal compassion, respect, responsibility, and environmental stewardship.


[1] Air Quality. Coalition for a Livable Future website. Available online at

[2] DEQ Places Air Toxics Monitor in Hillsboro. Fact Sheet. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ). (Last updated 2/5/13). Available on-line at .

[3] IARC: Outdoor Air Pollution a Leading Environmental Cause of Cancer Deaths - Press Release. World Health Organization (WHO): International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). (10/17/13). Available online at

[4] Balbus J., Frumkin H., Hayden M., Hess J., McGeehin M., Sheats, N. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: Chapter 9 Human Health. National Climate Assessment. (May 2014). Pg. 221. Available online at

[5] The 2011 National Emissions Inventory. Maps and Fusion Tables. Environmental Protection Agency. Available on-line at

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