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Why Portland Heavy Metals Pollution Went Undetected For So Long

February 19, 2016

Standing in front of a stained glass window in his showroom, Uroboros Glass President Eric Lovell walks through some of the colors and the metals used to make them.

"You're looking at chrome and copper greens, gold pinks and iron sulfide ambers," he said. "The yellow border there and the parrot feathers, reds and oranges, are the cadmium colors that are the current topic."

Inside the North Portland workshop, employees scoop glowing, molten glass out of 2200-degree furnaces.

They roll the glass into sheets and crush it into small shards for artists to use in their work. The vibrant colors that emerge from these furnaces come from metals added to the glass mix.

It's a similar scene at the much larger Bullseye Glass facility in Southeast Portland. Until recently, neither company had heard any concerns about what else might be coming out of those furnaces. Because of the way pollution rules are designed, nobody ever tested the emissions from the two facilities and no pollution controls were required on their furnaces.

Experimental moss testing raised the first red flag, revealing hotspots for cadmium near the two facilities.

Follow-up air testing near SE 22nd Avenue and SE Powell Boulevard found levels of cadmium at about 50 times the health benchmark for healthy air. It found arsenic levels at about 150 times the benchmark. Regulators linked the hot spot to Bullseye. Officials say those levels are high enough to raise the risk of cancer for people living nearby.

Suddenly, a whole lot of Portlanders are demanding to know why regulators didn't know more about the pollution coming from these two glassmakers and why there aren't more pollution controls on these two plants.

How the rules work

Environmental regulators admit they didn't know how much cadmium and arsenic were coming out of the Bullseye Glass facility. They still don't.

Nobody knows exactly how much of the pollutants detected in the moss and in the air actually came from the Uroboros and Bullseye glassmaking facilities.

According to Portland State University professor of environmental science Linda George, both plants are small enough that nobody is required to test their actual pollution emissions. They're under the limit set by the Clean Air Act for emissions testing and for adding pollution controls.

Bullseye Glass operates 14 furnaces. But it still doesn't emit more than 10 tons of any one hazardous air pollutant. It doesn't exceed the total limit of 25 tons of total hazardous air pollutants, either. George says that means there's no requirement to test what comes out of its furnaces or put pollution controls on them.

"They're under the limit. That's how it works," George said. "It's crazy. There's no number for how much they're emitting. It's just 'less than.' So we have no idea how much they're emitting.”

George wrote a letter to federal officials this week telling them the current rules don't take toxicity into account, putting local neighborhoods at a disproportionate health risk from toxic air pollution. Given how the rules work, she said, the discovery of metals hot spots in Portland is not a surprise.

"I believe there will be many such 'discoveries' in the weeks and years to come," she wrote.

'We demand that you do your job'

Of course, many Portland residents are just learning that this is how the rules work.  The news has many people running to their doctors to get their hair and urine tested for heavy metals. They're also looking to state regulators in dismay and demanding new rules.

At a recent public meeting, Jessica Applegate was first in line to give officials an earful on behalf of her neighborhood. She's raised two teenage children in Southeast Portland not far from Bullseye Glass.

"I'm alarmed by this to say the least," she said. "My entire child's lifetime has been filled with this air."

Applegate and her neighbors have asked Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to shut down the Bullseye Glass plant entirely until its emissions are proven to be non-toxic.

"It is our government's job to defend us from threats to our health and safety. We demand that you do your job," Applegate told health and environmental officials. "We are stunned at our government's abysmal failure."

Brown hasn't ordered Bullseye to shut down. She has asked regulators to look at how Oregon can do a better job of controlling toxic air pollution. Officials say they're looking at options – like adding state rules similar to those in Washington, where pollution testing and controls can be required for small facilities.

Officials are holding a second community meeting Thursday night from 5 to 9 p.m. at Tubman Building, 2231 N. Flint, in Portland.

Officials respond with more testing, rule-making

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Dick Pedersen says his agency is "springing to action" in response to the findings.

"It is alarming and it is of great concern to me personally and to the agency," he said. "I do understand where people definitely want more, and given the tools that we have and the resources that we have we're going to continue to focus on this and get more where we need more."

His agency is now testing soil in Southeast Portland and doing additional air testing near the Uroboros Glass facility in North Portland. It's also building an inventory of other facilities that might have similar emissions and working on new rules for controlling toxic air pollution.

Pedersen said regulators knew that there were elevated levels of toxic air pollutants around Portland, including cadmium and arsenic. The agency had seen higher levels in the limited air testing it has done in the past. But those results didn't tell them where the emissions were coming from.

"We didn't know particular sources of cadmium and arsenic," he said. "We knew it was in our airshed."

The type of sampling the U.S. Forest Service did with its moss study is unique, he said, and it revealed valuable information the agency wouldn't otherwise have known without lots of very expensive air testing.

"To our knowledge it's never been done anywhere in the country," Pedersen said. "We're definitely learning something new, and I'm very happy that we have this information because it does highlight concerns that we need to address."

Glass companies stop using some metals

Uroboros Glass hasn't used arsenic for more than 20 years. But like Bullseye, it uses cadmium to make red, orange and yellow colored glass. Or rather it used to.

Both companies have suspended the use of cadmium in response to the high levels of the heavy metal detected in tests of moss growing nearby. Bullseye is no longer using arsenic. Now, at the state's request, both companies have stopped using chromium too. Chromium is used to make green glass colors. Chronic, low-level exposure to the hexavalent form of chromium increases the risk of lung cancer.

Lovell of Uroboros Glass said he's hoping further testing will offer a better answer to whether his company is actually responsible for the cadmium hot spot detected in moss a quarter mile from his facility.

"We hope we'll be exonerated soon," he said. "We aren't directly connected at this point to the cadmium releases in any part of Portland. We understand the coincidence of us using cadmium for colors and the discovery of it at that location, so we've stopped immediately to make sure everybody has time to figure out what the real source is."

Bullseye Glass co-founder Dan Schwoerer says without making red, orange, yellow and green glass colors his company's production is down by about a third. If regulators can't find a way for his company to resume using cadmium and chromium safely somewhat soon, he said, his company could very well go out of business.

"I'm still in a state of shock over this and you know sleep doesn't come easily," he said. "I'm really concerned for the neighborhood, for my company, for my employees, and for the future of colored glass."

Bullseye Glass co-founder Dan Schwoerer pulls out one of the orange glass sheets his company makes using cadmium.

Cassandra Profita, OPB