Neighbor stories

How a Portland community came together to investigate lead contamination in their neighborhood

Written by Annie Barco

When University of Oregon graduate school student Zach Putnam was asked to come up with a story for his documentary filmmaking class, it was around the same time that the local Oregonian newspaper published a set of maps illustrating air quality tests conducted by the Forest Service. To Zach’s surprise, his own neighborhood of Kenton in North Portland appeared as a red blob on the map, indicating high lead contamination. The area was getting little attention from the city, so Zach decided to look into it.

Unsure where to start, Zach posted a message to his neighbors on Nextdoor explaining the blob and asking if anyone had theories about why it encompassed their neighborhood. Neighbors quickly began commenting with their feelings about the contamination and ideas for where it originated. Zach was encouraged by the response from his community and the many suggested theories, and decided he’d investigate the lead contamination for his documentary project.

Once receiving approval from his professor to pursue this idea, he put together a team of colleagues including fellow students Richard Percy and David Mackay. Together, Zach, Richard, and David began delving into the various theories presented by Zach’s neighbors, and ultimately put together a film documenting their journey.

Watch the film here.

After months of research and hundreds of soil samples, Zach, his team, and the Kenton neighborhood were ultimately unable to determine exactly where the contamination originated. However, their project has helped bring attention to the neighborhood and has persuaded members of the City to look into the issue further. In fact, after debuting the film at the neighborhood association meeting, Tina Kotek, a local assembly woman, wrote to the City asking for more information on the possible causes of the contamination.

For everyone involved in the project, the film and the attention it created for the area was a big win. For Zach, it was not only a professional achievement, but also an opportunity that helped him form strong relationships with many of his neighbors, making the project even that more meaningful.

To learn more about Zach, Richard, and David’s project, visit:

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