DEQ Endangers Public by Sitting on Toxic Air Quality Data
A Portland neighborhood learned two companies had been polluting their air with toxic chemicals. Turns out DEQ had known about it for almost a year. Why did DEQ let these companies operate illegally, endangering Oregonians – and then hide it?
Bullseye Glass cleared on air pollution issues
Portland firm invests more than $1 million to lower emissions; monitor removed after it passes tests
After more than a year of controversy over its toxic air emissions, Bullseye Glass Co., a Southeast Portland company that makes stained glass, has passed tests that show its air emissions now meet health guidelines set by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority.
The tests, conducted by a DEQ contractor in late March, show that all of Bullseye’s emissions are now within state and federal regulatory limits, thanks to the installation last fall of air-pollution control devices known as baghouses at its Southeast Portland factory. The tests examined emissions of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese and nickel at their source, according to a report issued by the contractor, Montrose Air Quality Services of Portland.
“Bullseye Glass installed a custom-designed emission-control system that cost well over $1 million,” says Jim Jones, Bullseye’s vice president. “We are pleased the source-testing demonstrates that this state-of-the art system is extremely efficient. We are excited to continue making handcrafted art glass with our 135 employees in Portland and to do our part in promoting cleaner air for our city.”
Saga started with moss study
The DEQ first inkling that the plant’s emissions were potentially harmful to public health came in May 2015, when the U.S. Forest Service provided it with preliminary data from a moss study that identified the neighborhood near Bullseye as one of numerous hot spots of harmful heavy-metal pollution around Portland.
DEQ and the Forest Service had been conducting the groundbreaking moss study for more than two years. The Forest Service says moss, with its capability of absorbing airborne contamination, provides important clues about what’s in the air. The federal agency tested moss from tree trunks and branches at 346 sites throughout Portland. At locations near the Bullseye plant, it found cadmium levels 49 times higher than the top of DEQ’s acceptable range and arsenic levels 155 times higher. A loophole in state and federal regulations had allowed the emissions to go unchecked.
The moss study also found elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, one of the most carcinogenic substances in the environment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In June 2015, DEQ determined that two Portland glass companies — Bullseye at 3722 S.E. 21st Ave., and Uroboros Glass Studio at 2139 N. Kerby St. — were the likely sources of some of this pollution. Uroboros closed its plant last May and moved production to Mexico.
DEQ officials sat on this information until it was reported to the public on Feb. 3, 2016, by freelance investigative journalist Dan Forbes in the Portland Mercury. Forbes noted that the DEQ had found the glass companies had been operating illegally for many years without baghouses.
Jones, Bullseye vice president, says some of the plant’s emissions at the time were being controlled by baghouses, though not all of them.
Sparked citizen activism
The Bullseye controversy triggered an aggressive community campaign to clean up the toxic pollution that continues to contaminate Portland’s entire airshed.
Jessica Applegate, a leader of Eastside Portland Air Coalition, says the source tests show that Bullseye’s emissions are down 99 percent, but other industrial polluters and diesel-powered vehicles continue to pose health hazards.
“This is a win and a relief,” Applegate says. “That’s not to say that we won’t always be worried about Bullseye.
“We need assurance that Bullseye is not allowed to expand production and that every modification and change in their production is fully transparent to the public.”
EPA data shows that Portland’s air is loaded with carcinogens, neurotoxins and other chemicals. The toxic air pollution in only a handful of counties in the United States is more carcinogenic or more dangerous to people’s respiratory systems, says Katharine Salzmann of the Eastside Portland Air Coalition.
DEQ officials intend to strengthen Oregon’s air pollution permitting rules under a new regulatory scheme known as Cleaner Air Oregon. Regulated companies, working through Associated Oregon Industries, oppose the plan and have lobbied to deny the agency funding.
“I want a robust, healthy, powerful DEQ with the resources and chutzpah to fulfill their mission statewide,” Salzmann says.