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Q&A: What We Know About Portland's Toxic Air Emissions

Two air-pollution hotspots in Portland have many residents worried about exposure to arsenic, cadmium, and now hexavalent chromium, which can be highly carcinogenic.

The hotspots have drawn attention to two glassmakers, which have now suspended the use of any of those materials in their production processes.

This scare has drawn attention to what you’ve called a blind spot in air pollution regulations. Can you remind us what it is and how it was discovered?

This situation has put a spotlight on the fact that Oregon doesn't actually test the air pollution coming from small facilities like these glassmakers.

The rules for these facilities are based on a total limit for hazardous air pollutants. If you're under that limit, you don't need to add pollution controls and nobody is required to test the air outside your facility.

Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality only has one permanent air monitoring station that tests for heavy metals in the city and it's in North Portland. So, they really didn't know what was in the air around Bullseye Glass in Southeast Portland.

Then, the U.S. Forest Service detected a cadmium hotspot nearby in a study that tested moss around the city. After those results came out, regulators set up an air testing station in the neighborhood around Buyllseye. That's the only reason we now know that cadmium levels in the air were about 50 times the state's health benchmark and arsenic levels were about 150 times healthy levels.

So how much teeth do state regulators have when it comes to these airborne pollutants?

When it comes to smaller manufacturing facilities, regulators don't have much teeth at all. If a plant is under the total emissions limit, it doesn't matter if the pollution exceeds the state's health benchmarks for air quality.

Bullseye Glass and Uroboros Glass are both following the letter of the law. But the law doesn't require anyone to check to see whether pollution from those facilities is creating unhealthy air in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown got more involved in this issue Monday. What did she call for?

The governor called on health and environmental officials to step up their efforts to inform the public of health risks and additional findings. She directed the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to start testing the soil around these hot spots to find out if people may face an additional risk from eating vegetables in their gardens. And she directed the Oregon Health Authority to coordinate information for people who are getting their urine tested for heavy metals. She's also pressing the agencies for more information about how we can better control toxic air pollution going forward.

How is all this affecting Bullseye Glass?

Bullseye Glass has had to cut back its production considerably. The company voluntarily stopped using cadmium, which means it can no longer make red, orange and yellow glass colors. As of Monday Bullseye stopped using chromium, which is what it uses to make green glass colors. So, no more greens, either.

The company owner says he's fine with suspending these colors for now. His bigger concern is that the company will need some new rules from the state before it can get back to making these colors. Without those rules, it is very unclear if they're going to be able to stay in business.

A group of neighbors has formally asked the company to shut down entirely. The company has declined to do so, saying that would definitely put the whole business in jeopardy.

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

Cassandra Profita

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

Cassandra Profita