Featured Student Work: “The Kenton Lead Blob*” documentary

Story and video by Richard Percy

When news broke in February 2016 that locations around Portland had tested positive for toxic air contaminants, my SOJC Multimedia Journalism Master’s cohort took notice.

At the time, we were deciding on a topic for our winter term class project, a series of short documentary videos exploring several angles on one relevant issue. We had the length of the term for production and post, so we had time to do some research. When we voted on an overall topic, air toxicity in Portland won.

The 10 of us divided into groups, and I chose to work with Zach Putnam, whom I’d worked with before, with help from David MacKay, another student in our cohort. When it came time to zero in on an angle for our documentary, we decided to investigate the potential threat of lead pollution to the North Portland neighborhood called Kenton.

It was Putnam who initially brought the story to our attention. He found out The Oregonian had published a U.S. Forest Service map showing a multicolored, asymmetrical bullseye that indicated a hotspot of lead pollution centered right on top of his neighborhood. Lead poisoning had been such a buzz topic in the news that it naturally drew some concern in an environmentally conscious city like Portland. But Putnam couldn’t understand the graphic on the map. Just what were the colors and asymmetrical shape supposed to indicate? As a resident of Kenton, he wanted to find out.

Although The Oregonian noted that “a Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman downplayed the maps' significance, saying they don't prove Portlanders nearby are breathing dirty air,” the questions remained: Why was the visualization of this apparent contamination so concentrated, and why was it only in this particular residential area? And if the maps don’t mean anything, why publish them at all?

The timeline we presented in our film accurately represents the timeline of our reporting, starting with a connection Putnam made with his neighbors through the social media app NextDoor and following leads from there. Developing organically as we learned more about the issue, our story became a mix of traditional (what our professor called “gumshoe”) reporting, data visualization and engagement journalism.

Through an online thread, Putnam asked his neighbors if they had seen the alarming map and found that many had, with reactions similar to his. Immediately people suggested theories, and we followed up with some of the commenters to schedule interviews. Thus began production of “The Kenton Lead Blob*.”

One of his neighbors, Mary Ann, commented that Portland International Raceway is within earshot of the Kenton neighborhood, and that its website says the use of leaded racing fuel is allowed. Could that be related, the thread considered? Regardless of its relation to the hotspot, the fact that this was legal in a public park excited enough neighbors to get the attention of State Representative Tina Kotek, a Kenton local, and The Portland Tribune picked up that story.

Rick, another neighbor on the thread, suggested that the apparent hotspot could be the result of a demolished home, considering that many of them are covered in lead paint. For all we knew at the time, the moss sample for the Forest Service’s laboratory-based air-quality test could have been taken from a location plagued by lead paint particles.

Then Ryan, another neighbor, countered: If home demos were the cause, why wouldn’t more hotspots be shown on the map published by The Oregonian, given how many demolitions happen in Portland annually?

We found out that the hotspot visualization was based on only one sample spot, and the spread of the blob was most likely representative of the area’s topography, rather than the spread of some contamination. The Oregonian published a series of these maps, each illustrating a different toxin, in the same article, accompanied by disclaimers that warned “boundaries shown are not precise.”

By the end of our film, this is evident: The “lead blob” isn’t a horror, here to ruin property values. It’s merely an example of poor data visualization. It’s illusory — hence the asterisk. Putnam and I communicated with the Forest Service scientists that conducted the study, and they admitted that the map was a hastily made sketch that The Oregonian had acquired through a records request. Since then, the Forest Service has released the raw data from the moss tests on its website. Most likely, neighbor Rick was correct that the apparent concentration was the result of a demolished home.

The Kenton Neighborhood Association, which worked with us from the beginning, welcomed us to its meetings, helped us collect soil samples from around Kenton and even hosted a screening for our film at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, followed by a community Q&A led by members of the Eastside Portland Air Coalition. We really appreciate their help.

Putnam and I also owe a lot to Tamara Rubin at Lead Safe America, whom we consulted about the causes and effects of lead poisoning, and who was kind enough to share her family’s story with us and our cameras. She tested all of our soil samples using an XRF scanner and gave some context to the results we were seeing. The readings weren’t as precise as what the Forest Service could do, but we had enough samples that we were able to accurately enough track the prevalence of lead around Kenton. Many neighbors just wanted to test their gardens.

When we got the results for our soil samples, we created an interactive map, on which we plotted where the samples were taken and the results of their scans. You can find our map and our documentary at www.KentonLeadBlob.com. To see my grad school cohort’s winter term project, visit pdxair.uoregon.edu.

Richard Percy will graduate this spring with a master’s in multimedia journalism. He is a Portland-based filmmaker and writer who develops story packages for the UO School of Journalism and Communications. View more of his work at www.richardpercy.com.