BULLSEYE GLASS bet a 42-year-old, multimillion-dollar company—not to mention about 140 jobs—on a ton or so of dense, white, lead-rich glass.
The so-called "white opal" variety of art glass was made May 9 and 10 and, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), required the Southeast Portland glassmaker to shovel more than 100 pounds of lead into its furnace each day.
The result: an unprecedented step for Oregon's oft-criticized environmental regulators. On May 19, alarming lead levels in the air around Bullseye spurred Governor Kate Brown to issue a 10-day cease-and-desist order to the controversial company's use of a wide swath of metals, effectively shutting down 80 percent of Bullseye's manufacturing operation, the company says.
Bullseye has already temporarily laid off more than a dozen employees for the next three weeks and, in a statement issued to KGW, warned of permanent job cuts to come if the 10-day order is extended.
With a multi-furnace pollution control system not scheduled to come online until August, and the company's one small "baghouse" control device now of questionable utility, it's a showdown at high noon. The company, in essence, is pressuring Brown to say, "I protected the community for 10 days. That's enough."
Or perhaps the governor will opt for safeguarding Portlanders until August. Toddlers at a daycare center threatened with the possibility of brain damage by lead levels nearly 4.5 times the state's daily safe-air goal—and worried parents crowding a Multnomah County health center Friday afternoon to get their kids tested—make their own strong case in an election year.
"Public health and safety are my highest priorities," Brown said in a statement Thursday. "This swift action and public notification will help ensure the well-being of local residents who live and work in the area."
As first reported by KOIN's Tim Becker, Bullseye and DEQ's Keith Johnson and Leah Feldon, assistant to the interim director, met with Bullseye at a DEQ office yesterday morning to discuss a path forward. It's unclear whether any progress was made.
It's ironic that Bullseye's potentially fatal blow came from lead, a substance largely ignored by DEQ as it focused on chromium, cadmium, and arsenic. Those three pollutants, after all, birthed an air-toxics crisis when the Mercury broke the news that air readings from October were far higher than the state's safe-air goals. Lead, on the other hand, wasn't seen as an issue, with only one daily level last October exceeding the state safety benchmark. Until last week, DEQ collectively shrugged when it came to lead.
At the same time, there was plenty of evidence lead was in use at Bullseye. State fire marshal's data from last month indicated Bullseye possessed at least 12,586 pounds of pure lead on the premises—and perhaps as much as 62,928 pounds (the data has wide margins).
That's potentially enough lead to do nearly 630 more glass-melts identical to the ones that set off recent air-quality alarms.
Yet those melts were totally within bounds. DEQ was letting Bullseye skate on the lead until temporary rules about the metal took effect on September 1. Jae Douglas, Multnomah County's director of environmental health, told OPB: "Lead was not considered a problem, and so it wasn't included in those initial rules."
"DEQ has been curiously uninterested in lead emissions so far," says "Ted," a respected glassmaker who's spoken to the Mercury on condition of anonymity for fear of industry reprisal. "Bullseye probably thought it could get away with doing the odd one-off lead melt in an uncontrolled emission furnace hoping DEQ didn't care."
In fact, the readings that have stirred the anthill were caused by a dramatic uptick in lead use at Bullseye, according to DEQ—potentially 10 times what the company had typically melted on a daily basis. The company upped its lead use despite the presence of four nearby air monitors, and with DEQ watching closely.
It's the same sort of tone-deafness that led Bullseye to cast potential blame for the recent lead readings on the nearby KinderCare Education daycare center's soil remediation efforts—efforts necessitated by prior scares Bullseye caused. Suggestion that the readings might have been from "earth-moving equipment" at the daycare was made in a May 20 Bullseye press release, but later removed.
Ted surmised that Bullseye felt it could fly under the radar due to regulators' prior indifference to lead. But to everyone's surprise, that no longer applied to a newly emboldened DEQ.
"We feel we finally found some allies at DEQ to do their job and advocate for us; that's a sea change," says Jessica Applegate, a founding member of the Eastside Portland Air Coalition (EPAC), formed in response to concerning air toxics levels around Bullseye.
Justifying the governor's order, David Farrer, the Oregon Health Authority's senior toxicologist, referred to "a pattern of unpredictable emissions of metals from this facility. In addition to this lead finding, we're also concerned about this overall pattern of emission events that keep coming. And so that's why the cease-and-desist order applies to other metals."
DEQ's letter to Brown requesting the order referred to "a pattern of unpredictable emission of toxic metals at potentially unsafe levels. The unpredictable nature of these emissions pose an imminent and substantial endangerment...."
Which may be another way of saying the State of Oregon was tired of mendacity, tired of being embarrassed.
As with most things involving Bullseye and regulation, oddities abound.
It's not just the fact that the two melts volleyed lead across DEQ's bow. The way Bullseye says it carried out those melts would have partly ruined one of its furnaces, according to experts.
Bullseye told Keith Johnson, DEQ's Northwest region manager, the lead glass from May 9 and 10 was fired in Furnace 7, its sole furnace attached to a baghouse.
That's strange, because Bullseye has said publicly that furnace would be dedicated to some of its most popular products: red, orange, and yellow cadmium glass. But once you foul a cadmium furnace with lead, practically speaking, it's pretty much ruined for cadmium.
"It would be next to impossible to switch cadmium and lead in and out of the same furnace," says Eric Miller, a Portland designer who earlier in his career worked for both Bullseye and as a batch formulator for North Portland's Uroboros Glass. "Once either one is in a furnace, you're pretty much stuck. Particularly with the lead, since that can precipitate into little nodules in the furnace bricks like cavities in your teeth and turns any cadmium glasses dark brown."
Miller says if you wanted to go back to cadmium production once lead has been in a furnace, you might have to re-line it at a cost of at least $10,000 for even a small furnace.
"Archie," another glass expert who requested anonymity, put it starkly: "Lead can never [be] in a furnace that makes a cadmium yellow or selenium red. It will, for the rest of its days, turn [the glass] shit brown."
Why scotch making a highly popular product to make a ton or so of white opal glass—banishing reds, yellows and oranges from that furnace? Archie said, "It's hard to imagine why they would do this now."
That's particularly true since Furnace 7's baghouse wasn't even working when Bullseye made the lead-heavy white glass. It had been disconnected on May 6, according to DEQ's Johnson. That means the furnace now ruined for cadmium-tinged glass wouldn't have been able to offer any protections to the surrounding community anyway. To experts—if the lead was, in fact, melted in Furnace 7—it didn't add up.
The Mercury reached out to Bullseye for this story, but got no reply.
It's worth noting that the company has given questionable statements to regulators before—as in 2007, when it denied using arsenic in its products to federal regulators, but reported to state officials using thousands of pounds of an arsenic compound.
As we've reported, the company also seemed intent on dodging accurate readings earlier this month, when DEQ ordered monitors attached to its flues in hopes of learning how much cancer-causing hexavalent chromium the company emitted. Bullseye chose to melt a glass with relatively low chromium content for that test, contrary to state instructions.
But lead is a different animal. It's a potent neurotoxin that can harm children on the spot. Which led last Friday to kids, their parents, and other adults presenting themselves at a Multnomah County health center, a short jog from Bullseye, to get their fingers pricked.
Kerry Ryan, who lives five blocks from the glassmaker, was there with her toddler. A member of EPAC, she said her first reaction upon hearing of the lead was, "You've got to be kidding me—again?" The next day, she realized, "I'm beside myself with anger."
As for Bullseye, Ryan said, "It's easier for them to play the victim. I believe they're not evil. But I do believe they're delusional."
Also at the health center Friday, with his two-year-old daughter who attends the daycare near Bullseye, was Michael Wolfe. "No amount of lead is good—it's like radiation," said Wolfe. "From what I read, the damage is lifelong." The damage from lead also affects, he believes, "focus and discipline and how someone is able to operate in the social environment."
Melissa Taylor, an adult who's lived near Bullseye since 1999, was at the health center to get her own blood tested. "You can't be angry at Bullseye without being angry at a lot of other industries," she said. You can't be angry at Bullseye without also being angry at DEQ, Taylor added.
As of press time, it was too early to tell whether Brown would extend her 10-day cease-and-desist order on Bullseye. For glassman Archie, it's a wonder the order hadn't come sooner. "The very fact that the lead shoe has taken so long to drop is remarkable," he said.
He also decried Bullseye owner Daniel Schwoerer's course of action, "claiming 'no flies on me' by saying a single monitoring source is inconclusive. I'm really disappointed in these guys."