IN MID-SEPTEMBER, some seven months after Bullseye Glass entered a vortex of regulatory oversight and community outrage over emissions of poisonous heavy metals, it was still sending toxic materials into its neighborhood.
Stormwater runoff from the Southeast Portland glassmaker’s roof contained levels of five hazardous heavy metals as much as 33 times the federal maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for publicly supplied water, according to data obtained by the Mercury. Experts say the polluted water might have made its way into the area’s groundwater.
The stormwater was captured as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) investigated a structure called a drywell that was capped by asphalt in Bullseye’s driveway. About eight feet deep by five feet across and with an open bottom, the chamber—formally called an underground injection control (UIC)—captures water from a downspout off the factory’s roof, eventually discharging it into underground soil.
And while no one is drinking the water captured from Bullseye’s drywell, DEQ Senior Hydrogeologist Matthew Kohlbecker says, “When stormwater exceeds MCLs, the potential to endanger groundwater exists.”
DEQ is currently performing more tests to determine if groundwater near Bullseye has been impacted; the results are expected within a few weeks.
Along with tainted rainwater coming off the roof, DEQ also found approximately two feet of highly polluted sediment in the drywell that has built up over the past 24 years, when—contrary to best practices—the chamber was capped and ignored.
DEQ says the sediment contained “highly elevated levels” of hazardous metals, indicating the effects of Bullseye’s two-decades-plus production of heavy-metal-infused colored glass while using no filters on its furnaces.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes its contamination limits in order to “evaluate whether [sediment] needs to be managed as hazardous waste when disposed of at a landfill,” Kohlbecker says.
Referring to DEQ’s ongoing tests, Kohlbecker says that “means that additional data should be collected to determine whether this drywell endangers groundwater.”
And pollutant levels in the sediment, which provide a historical picture of the amount of poisonous metals washed off Bullseye’s roof, are far worse than the snapshot offered by the rainwater.
• For the potent neurotoxin cadmium, the MCL for “leachable metals in sediment” is 5 micrograms per liter (ug/L); Bullseye’s sediment contained 213,000 ug/L of cadmium —42,600 times the MCL.
• For lead, the sediment MCL is 15 ug/L; there were 70,000 ug/L of lead in Bullseye’s sediment, or 4,667 times the MCL.
• For arsenic, 419 times the MCL sediment guideline was found.
• Selenium (32 times the MCL) and chromium (2.7 times) were also elevated.
For stormwater runoff—as opposed to that nasty sediment—authorities measure the “maximum permissible level of a contaminant” in a public water system.
And the rainwater tells a more immediate story, with DEQ’s measurements detailing the pollution of water captured after a September 17 storm.
The results show cadmium at 33 times the MCL; lead and selenium at 9 times the MCL; arsenic at more than 4 times the guideline; and chromium nearly double.
If these metals have leached from the open-bottom drywell into nearby groundwater, leaching may have occurred for years. The sediment took more than two decades to accumulate, according to a Bullseye press release.
Jeff Dresser, an engineer with Bridgewater Group, a Bullseye consultant, said in a brief phone interview that the drywell was constructed when the glassmaker added another building to its site in 1992.
Eventually Bullseye capped the well with a driveway. And there it sat for 24 years, collecting heavy metals carried by rainwater off the roof. The question, as Oregon’s Administrative Rules put it, is whether by allowing the well to do so, Bullseye protected “existing groundwater quality for current or potential beneficial uses.”
The EPA says Bullseye’s type of drywell is “created to discharge directly into the subsurface”—that is, soil below the surface level.
What happens after that is partly dependent on the nature of the soil involved. DEQ notes that “fractured rock” or “coarse-grained sediments” allow for greater mobility. But “clay minerals and organic matter” are more restrictive.
Mark A. Dilley, an ecological consultant with Ohio-based MAD Scientist Associates, says that, depending on the type of soil present, “I would expect to see movement of these metals to the groundwater.... It wouldn’t be a big surprise.”
He adds, “It is the concentrations in environmental media (soil, sediment, surface water, groundwater) beyond the facility, in areas accessible to the public, that present the potential threat to public health.”
Bill Spearman, a board member of the American Public Works Association, notes that “with a drywell, there’s not a lot of control where it goes. It’ll transport offsite and, depending on conditions there, it’ll pop up elsewhere.”
Bullseye’s drywell is also out-of-step with state recommendations. The DEQ recommends companies keep their wells accessible, but Bullseye paved over the one where metals had been collecting.
“To have a drywell where heavy metals are affecting the site, and it’s covered up,” Spearman says, “there’s something going on.”
Oddly, in a “Questions and Answers” document issued October 10, the DEQ focused on the single metal found at relatively low levels (though still above the regulatory limit) in the Bullseye sediment: hexavalent chromium.
“We know that most of these metals do not readily dissolve in water, and won’t typically contaminate groundwater, with the exception being hexavalent chromium,” the document reads.
The agency fails to address that the sediment held more than 42,000 times the federal limit for cadmium, and 4,667 times the limit for lead—both potent toxins.
The statement was also at odds with guidelines for drywells that the DEQ has available online. Those state: “[S]ome metals are more mobile or soluble in water than others. Those in order of concern (based on mobility in water) are: zinc, lead, cadmium....”
Chromium is listed seventh on the mobility and solubility list.
The agency’s rules state that roof-fed drywells don’t require a permit. That means Bullseye wasn’t required to prove its runoff didn’t harm groundwater.
But the DEQ’s Kohlbecker says facilities do “have the burden of showing that a drywell does not allow contaminants to reach groundwater. Bullseye Glass is in the process of doing that now, under the direction of DEQ.”
Adding to the confusion, DEQ documents suggest that Bullseye might have been required to “pre-treat” stormwater from its roof, since the water contained heavy metals.
How are we learning about this now? In June, the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) informed Bullseye owner Dan Schwoerer that it had “received a citizen complaint that Bullseye Glass was improperly disposing of materials” in March.
Three stormwater basins were examined at BES’s behest, and “large shards of glass” and “high levels of selenium” were found at the bottom of a manhole just south of the factory. BES says those findings demonstrate that the company was “releasing selenium into the city’s collection system.”
Bullseye was fined $600, and warned not to put anything else in city sewers. (By contrast, DEQ fined TriMet $5,160 for a simple failure to monitor two of four drywells at one of its facilities.) It was also instructed to clean up the mess and hire a consultant to help it adopt “best management practices.”
On the heels of this BES enforcement, DEQ investigated the drywells it had jurisdiction over. According to a June 28 letter Kohlbecker sent to Bullseye, this was to “ensure that underground sources of drinking water are protected.”
A drywell on the facility’s north side was accessible and within rule. Bullseye was instructed to unearth the one buried beneath asphalt on the production side of the plant, near where BES had found the selenium.
Pollution coming off Bullseye’s roof should come as no great surprise to Mercury readers. In February we reported on a then-Bullseye employee’s 2013 anonymous complaint to DEQ about the company’s practice of cleaning its glass-crushing machine by blowing glass powder out of it onto the roof.
“When the crusher had to be cleaned, we just blew it out,” Eric Miller, a Portland-based mechanical designer who worked for Bullseye back in the early 1980s, told the Mercury.
As reported in the prior Mercury article, employees went to the roof at least once a week armed with brooms, shovels, and buckets to remove multicolored glass powder that had spewed from a pipe below. That powder was scattered onto the roof by compressed air used to clean the company’s crushers. The anonymous complainant told DEQ it was carried out “through pipes/vents onto the roof and into the air... a lot of it is carried off by the wind.”
Bullseye assured the state after the 2013 complaint it would filter the crushing operation, though it’s not clear the agency ever confirmed this.
But coarse powder shoveled into buckets is less dangerous than fine particulates that blow through the air. Potentially addressing the glass-crushing operation did not address the more serious issue of heavy metals vaporizing off 2,400-degree Fahrenheit glass furnaces and shooting up stacks that lacked pollution control filters from 1974 until earlier this year.
Some portion fell to the roof, where rain washed it down into the drywell to collect in sediment over the decades.
BES’s Matthew Criblez is the environmental compliance officer overseeing Bullseye’s water discharges to the city’s sewers. Asked about the elevated selenium BES found, he said, “I believe it’s from air emissions deposited back on the property. It came up the stack and then fell, and the rain washed it off—that’s my theory.”
The Mercury reached out to Bullseye for this story, but got no substantive reply. The company did write BES and DEQ a letter in September promising to conduct visual inspections and improve housekeeping—sweeping and vacuuming—among other measures. It also said it has installed filters to forestall large shards in the city’s system. And its newly installed baghouse filtration device will mitigate the issue of water pollution, Bullseye says.
Kohlbecker says his discussions on moving forward with Bullseye await the results of the more sophisticated tests regarding whether it fouled the groundwater or not.
The most likely outcome is that the drywell is history, Criblez at BES says. “Bullseye will be issued a permit and be required to install treatment to remove metals. This is the most critical point—we will manage them at their point of discharge to our system.”
Daniel Forbes is the author of Derail This Train Wreck. He lives in Portland, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.