SHE LOST A FEW POINTS on style, Debbie Carlin concedes, but occasionally wearing a hospital surgical mask outdoors was the only way she could finish mowing her yard.
"The fumes get to be that bad," says the South Park homeowner.
Other neighbors say the effects of the chronic chemical stench are even worse. One had to move away due to constant nosebleeds, Carlin says. Another South Park resident, Kenda Cook, says she had surgery for pollution-caused sinus complications.
The source of their ailments, residents say, is another neighbor, the venerable Long Painting Company of South Park that bills itself as the Northwest's largest painting contractor. The company's 5-acre industrial painting operation sits in the middle of a tree-lined southwest Seattle residential neighborhood, a low-income, predominately white and Hispanic community with little clout at City Hall.
Painter of the Kingdome roof, Safeco Field steel, bridges, and even an aircraft carrier, Long Painting moved onto its South Park site almost 25 years ago and, like the community surrounding it, has grown progressively larger.
"It's a classic land use issue," says Dennis McLerran, director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, "where local government—through zoning laws—allows industrial use right up against homes. It's an endless challenge in compatibility."
And in staying healthy, nearby residents say.
They pinpoint Long Painting's on-site ventilation stacks and outdoor painting operations as the primary cause of what they claim has been decades of air pollution, resulting in their constant headaches, red and teary eyes, respiratory complications, and the metallic taste on their tongues. At times, the company's operations have sent chemical fumes and sandblasting dust wafting to nearby homes, some close enough to bump up against Long Painting's fence line.
A state Department of Health study shows those emissions as well as noise from the site's heavy equipment pose health concerns for the neighborhood, which includes a bucolic city park alongside the Duwamish River. A state Department of Ecology study of South Park's groundwater has also detected residues from past chemical spills at Long Painting.
The company has just settled separate pollution and land-use code violations and has been without a fire permit to store dangerous chemicals since at least 1992, according to the Seattle Fire Department.
THE SITUATION COULD get worse, residents say. Long Painting plans to expand its on-site operation by demolishing a few old structures and adding three new buildings, one sized at 32,500 square feet.
Two weeks ago, David Bricklin, an attorney for some of the neighbors, formally requested that the city rezone Long Painting's operation and halt the expansion. If residents had their way, they would like the industrial operation shut down and moved. They think government agencies failed to protect them because of lapsed oversight and quirky regulations.
"When you complain to the clean-air agency," says Debbie Carlin, "they send out inspectors who have you stand in your yard and sniff the air. For 15 minutes, they ask you over and over, 'OK, now do you smell it?' It's ridiculous, and they put you at greater risk!"
Despite official foot dragging, the neighbors' persistence has recently gotten some results.
Long Painting just reached a settlement to operate an on-site spray and sandblasting facility that it operated without permits for almost two years, says clean-air agency director McLerran.
Inspectors discovered the unpermitted operations in 1998. Residents complain that his agency dawdled at their expense, but McLerran says the company has been hit with fines and civil penalties and is under enforcement order to correct its practices.
Long Painting also recently paid $30,000 in a settlement with the city to avoid going to court over unpermitted land and building uses.
The company still faces a $575 daily fine and other penalties if it fails to obtain all the necessary permits. The department of Design, Construction, and Land Use (DCLU) could close down some operations if Long Painting doesn't comply.
DCLU spokesman Alan Justad says that while the painting and sandblasting operation has been inspected and occasionally cited for city code violations over 20 years, "When we did this recent, thorough survey of the site, we determined there were a number of buildings, more than 10 at least, that we had no record of [use] permits for."
The company has also lacked a hazardous materials storage permit from the Seattle Fire Department, says a fire marshal's office spokeswoman. Although Long Painting apparently applied for a permit in 1992, the department hasn't issued it because "we have a small staff, and we're terribly overworked," the spokeswoman said. She did not know if the company has ever had a permit. Another fire marshal's official, Steve Olsen, says the department has "done some inspections at Long."
Matt Remle, of the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice (CCEJ), says the company regularly stores up to 6,000 gallons of hazardous/flammable materials.
Government records show public complaints against Long Painting's operations and emissions date back to 1979, and a CCEJ air sampling of South Park turned up benzene, a carcinogen, at four times the acceptable rate. But the company denies it is harming or even upsetting most of the residents encircling its property.
"The community, the neighbors, are happy with us," insists Long Painting vice president and co-owner John Fisher. "We've shared the same space for 24 years. The only problem we have is with four or five people who live in Georgetown or on Beacon Hill, who are involved in an anti-industry effort against us," he says, referring to activists who are aiding South Park residents.
Fisher chose not to discuss the company's permit and pollution violations, referring this reporter to "the public record" (which includes claims that Long Painting has illegally torn down homes in the area). Founded in 1967 by Ty and Ann Long and now owned by four company managers, Long Painting showcases the forest green Safeco Field as one of its master projects.
Debbie Carlin remembers those days well. "When they were painting the Safeco steel [at South Park, prior to assembly], that's one of the times I had to wear my surgical mask outdoors," she says. "The paint fumes were so bad you couldn't open the door and windows; kids couldn't play outside. It was just horrible."
"If Long expands," adds her friend and fellow community activist Penni Cocking, "that would be devastating. The city is investing in new school buildings and a new library [in South Park], and some days you can't go outdoors to get there."
In this lengthy conflict, Long Painting's planned expansion is the newest battlefront. A permit process is underway, and the city may require the company to undergo an extensive environmental impact review. "We haven't made that threshold determination yet," says DCLU's Justad. "But it's a possibility."
Attorney Bricklin thinks Long Painting's site, now classified an industrial buffer zone, should be rezoned by the city as a high-impact manufacturing area, which could cause the company to cease operations there. "We are in strong opposition to the project being classified as either light or general manufacturing," says Bricklin, "in view of the operation's significant impacts and the extensive number of complaints and violations of environmental laws."
The relentless waiting game is wearing down some of the locals. McLerran concedes that complaints against Long Painting have dropped off "perhaps in part because people are just getting weary." That certainly describes Dorothee Janacek, who says she's been battling the company for 20 years. "I'm getting old," the longtime South Park resident says, having turned 76 on Christmas Day. "I'm getting tired, and the air is as bad as ever."