THE SOUTHEAST PORTLAND glass studio that state environmental regulators believe emitted two toxic carcinogens for years—or maybe decades—doesn't use a crucial pollution control device on its furnaces. And it's not the only glass factory in town missing the equipment.
The Mercury has learned that neither Bullseye Glass (3722 SE 21st) nor its cross-town competitor Uroboros Glass (2139 N Kerby) have "baghouse" pollution control devices installed on their glass melt furnaces—even though they employ the devices in other parts of their operations. An Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) official confirmed Bullseye doesn't have a baghouse on its glass furnace. Uroboros' owner confirmed the same about his company.
The lack of the controls—which the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says can catch nearly 100 percent of harmful particulates—makes it easy to see why regulators now suspect both outfits have been releasing vaporized cadmium into the air surrounding their factories.
On February 4, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced that monitoring last fall found arsenic levels around Bullseye are 149 times state safety benchmarks—numbers the Mercury had reported the previous day. Levels of cadmium turned up over the same period last October were 59 times the safety benchmarks.
The findings could mean increased risk of cancer for those routinely exposed to air around Bullseye, along with potential kidney damage and neurological development problems in children, according to the Oregon Health Authority, which adds that those outcomes are unlikely.
While detailed air quality findings around Uroboros have yet to be unveiled, the DEQ released a map on February 5 showing parts of town where cadmium levels are of potential concern. It shows two hotspots—one near Bullseye, one near Uroboros. DEQ air quality experts suggest that's far more than a coincidence.
"I can say, yes, we're confident it's Bullseye," says Sarah Armitage, a DEQ air toxics specialist and the agency's point person for its investigation, when the Mercury asked about cadmium levels near the factory.
The findings would be of concern near any residential area, but Bullseye is adjacent to a 100-child daycare facility, two public schools (Cleveland High School and Winterhaven K-8), and a city park.
In the wake of the air quality findings, both Bullseye and Uroboros ceased using cadmium to color their products, and Bullseye stopped using arsenic. (Uroboros has said it doesn't use arsenic.) That likely means the air near both companies is already improved, officials say, but the changes won't be able to remove traces of the chemicals from area soil.
Already, employees of the nearby Children's Creative Learning Center daycare say tests have turned up detectable arsenic and cadmium in playground soil. Another test that the Mercury was briefed on—still unreleased—suggested soil at nearby Cleveland High School has potentially concerning cadmium levels.
The fresh revelations have Portland parents in an uproar, and have prompted several public meetings to address their concerns.
According to public health experts, the concern is well founded. It's based on manufacturing practices that, according to a DEQ permit review, led to Bullseye emitting 3.5 tons of particulate-matter pollution (dust, in effect) out of its flue in 2009, the result of melting 2,144 tons of glass. Production has risen since, according to state permits.
Uroboros owner Eric Lovell says his company uses between 2,000 and 2,500 pounds of cadmium a year. It's melted in the company's furnaces just down the hill from the former Harriet Tubman School, which shuttered in 2012 but is currently housing students from Faubion Elementary School.
Heated at roughly 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, cadmium melts along with all the other ingredients that go into the two firms' fancy art glass. Citing published research, Alexis G. Clare, a professor of glass science at Alfred University in New York State, says 80 percent of what's used in that process goes up the flue—the same flue that lacks a baghouse at Bullseye and Uroboros.
This isn't the first time officials have had their eye on Bullseye, the Mercury has learned.
According to a complaint filed several years ago, Bullseye regularly sent two employees up to its roof armed with brooms, shovels, and buckets to remove multicolored glass powder that had spewed from a pipe. This powder—the byproduct of a crushed glass product known as "frit"—was shot onto the roof by compressed air used to clean the company's glass crushers.
A former Bullseye employee—who didn't want to be named, but whose employment the Mercury has confirmed with past pay stubs—says the dust was considered so dangerous that employees who worked at Bullseye were forbidden to grow facial hair to ensure a tight fit for the respirators they were required to wear. Anyone walking through that area even briefly was outfitted with a respirator, the former employee said. Yet that didn't stop Bullseye from blowing the powder onto the roof one or more times a week.
It's unclear how long the dust was allowed to collect weekly on the roof. It didn't come to light until the anonymous complaint in 2013 alerted the DEQ to the practice.
In response to that complaint, Bullseye controller Eric Durrin told DEQ regulators: "We have made 'frit' for over 25 years. The production equipment has been consistent over this timeframe."
Durrin assured regulators the frit operation would be attached to one of the facility's non-flue baghouse devices, which in theory would eliminate the concern. DEQ determined there was no need for an inspection, despite being told by the anonymous complainant that the powder was being carried "out through pipes/vents onto the roof and into the air.... a lot of it is carried off by the wind." The complainant called the powder a "concern for exposure to neighboring houses and businesses."
For its part, Uroboros has decided to meet the recent controversy head-on. The company's website says that the nearby cadmium hot-spot regulators have pinpointed is "about a quarter mile northwest of us. It clearly is not centered on Uroboros Glass, but we are on the fringe of the area." According to a study of Portland moss that's informed DEQ's findings, the distance Uroboros cites doesn't have bearing on whether it has helped cause the pollution.
Lovell claims Uroboros uses a less volatile form of cadmium—he maintains that in a "glassified state," it's bound together in a way that leads to less vaporization. Ferro Corporation, a company Lovell says supplied that product, confirmed Uroboros as a customer, but at press time, a spokesperson was unfamiliar with the product Lovell described.
Bullseye owner Daniel Schwoerer, meanwhile, told the Mercury on February 1 he was unaware of his factory's fugitive emissions. That statement was backed up by DEQ's air quality manager for the Northwest region, David Monro. Referring to Bullseye, he told a public meeting of concerned parents last week, "They're just as surprised as anyone else."
But some take issue with Bullseye's surprised reaction to the air quality findings. One skeptic is Jarred Lundstrom, whose father, Boyce Lundstrom, founded Bullseye with Schwoerer back in 1974.
"[Schwoerer's] well educated," Jarred Lundstrom tells the Mercury. "He knows everything that's going into the batch."
One of the most troubling things about the questions surrounding Bullseye is that it's not technically breaking any air quality rules. Existing regulations are geared toward much larger facilities—think companies that mass-produce beer bottles—rather than high-end art glass manufacturers.
Under its state permit, the company is legally allowed to emit 10 tons of any given air pollutant a year, or 25 tons for any combination of two or more toxins spewing from their stacks. Those weights, expressed in tons, apply not to the physical raw material involved, but to the amount of aerosol emissions—the weight of the smoke, smog, or plume.
As things stand, it's only public opinion keeping Uroboros and Bullseye from putting cadmium back into their furnaces. Monro, the DEQ air quality manager, declined to say last week whether the agency would seek tighter controls.
"Right now we've kind of got an all-hands-on-deck [attitude] to get all the information out there," he said.
At the same time the DEQ is taking flack for what many see as lax enforcement. The agency went so far as to inform Bullseye in September that an air monitor would be located outside its door the following month, according to Armitage.
This light touch isn’t unique to Bullseye. Gregg Lande, a retired DEQ senior air quality planner, was involved with a rare field investigation centered on Uroboros when the EPA first obtained high cadmium readings in its neighborhood in 2009. Lande does not describe a rigorous, adversarial investigation. Employing a pre-printed survey and not focusing on cadmium per se, “We just knocked on doors, three or four of us,” said Lande. “Hi, we're from DEQ, and we're trying to understand about the local air pollutants. Can you tell us about your process?”
According to an Uroboros self-report at the time, “there was no clear correlation” between days they worked with cadmium and four “red flag” days of elevated cadmium levels.
The manufacturer's response was taken at face value. “They're under the radar,” Lande said. “We came up empty.”
Today, though, the situation has become red meat to politicians. Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, a candidate for Portland mayor, wasted no time announcing a public forum on the problem via his Twitter account last week.
And on Tuesday, Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, also running for mayor, blasted DEQ, which has acknowledged it knew Portland had elevated cadmium levels for years, but that it didn't know until now where they were coming from.
"Bad things happen when regulators are asleep at the switch," Wheeler said in a press release. "It's unconscionable that Oregon regulators knew about the air pollution for three years, but didn't seem to make any real attempt to locate the source."
Dirk VanderHart contributed to this story.