Environmental regulators have said a novel U.S. Forest Service study of heavy metals trapped in moss tipped them off to problems with toxic emissions at Bullseye Glass in Southeast Portland.
But they’ve received a string of complaints dating back decades about the artistic glass manufacturer, according to documents released under Oregon’s open records law.
The complaints include reports of glass particles and hot ash in the air, dark plumes of smoke and suspicious smells coming from the facility. One fellow glassmaker repeatedly expressed urgent concerns about a lack of air pollution controls for metals coming out of the company’s furnaces. None of the complaints appears to have prompted a thorough investigation of Bullseye’s emissions from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
The first sign of trouble came in 1984, about a decade after Bullseye began operating.
In an interoffice memo from that year, DEQ inspector Richard H. Wixom recalled noticing a plume of smoke east of the Willamette River while he drove down Barbur Boulevard in Southwest Portland. When he saw it a second time, he traced it to its source: Bullseye Glass. Wixom made plans to inspect the facility.
“I saw some barrels labeled Cadmium which could cause emissions problems if used to color glass,” Wixom wrote.
He ended his memo mentioning that Uroboros Glass in Northeast Portland manufactures similar products, and that the agency’s air quality division might want to study the industry and its hazardous emissions for possible inclusion in regulations.
By the next year, DEQ was forcing Bullseye Glass to obtain an air quality permit.
In the three decades between Wixom’s first visit to Bullseye and DEQ’s disclosure last month that the glassmaker was emitting cadmium and arsenic, the agency had received at least eight complaints flagging emissions and other alleged pollution problems there.
The first came in 1987 from a neighbor who said fine glass was falling around her house. DEQ later inspected the facility and could not substantiate the complaint. Another came in 2000 from an anonymous concern about “hot ash” being discharged. The company began sweeping its roof regularly and made plans a year later to install a “baghouse” – a kind of fabric filter to capture dust escaping from its ventilation.
More recent allegations about Bullseye’s emissions do not appear to have prompted any such measurable changes.
In 2004, a neighbor reported finding particulate on his vehicle. Bullseye staff inspected the car but could not identify the material.
In September of 2005, Fred Cresswell, the founder of Seaview Art Glass in Cazadero, California, wrote to regulators at the EPA with scathing allegations against Bullseye.
“I have personally been to the facility and have seen what I believe to be gross violations of the emissions standards as well as the contaminated wash down water into and on to the City of Portland,” he wrote.
A few months passed.
Cresswell wrote to the EPA again: “It has been quite some time since I wrote to you regarding the Bullseye Glass Co and the extreme conditions I believe exist there … I would appreciate any kind of followup report that has been generated.”
The EPA responded, informing Cresswell his complaint had been forwarded to compliance administrator Anne Price with the Oregon DEQ, which permits and regulates the facility.
So, over a month later, Cresswell wrote to Price:
“I assume you received the following and would really appreciate a response,” he wrote. “THERE IS SOMETHING BAD GOING ON THERE.
“The worst part is they claim to be environmentally friendly,” Cresswell wrote. “if you monitored you would be shocked.”
Price forwarded the complaint to the regional office overseeing Bullseye, saying it needed to be followed up on. It was forwarded two more times, landing in the inbox of DEQ air quality regulator Kathy Amidon.
“I’ll take care of this one,” Amidon wrote. “If you get any other complaints against Bullseye, you may forward them to me.”
The thread ends there, more than five months after the initial complaint, with no record of follow up or further correspondence with Cresswell. Cresswell died in 2011.
Emails and text messages sent Monday to the Department of Environmental Quality seeking comment about the complaints were not immediately returned. On Monday evening Jennifer Flynt from the DEQ said she was consulting subject experts but didn’t comment further.
A spokesman for Bullseye said the allegations made by Cresswell are false.
“Unfortunately, it is very common for some businesses to file anonymous, unfounded complaints against their competitors,” the spokesman, Chris Edmonds, wrote in an email.
Complaints kept coming in: one in 2006 about “internal air monitoring” from someone who left no contact information, another in 2007 from a rooftop worker worker who noticed “a constant flow of ‘blue-grey’ smoke with a 15-20% opacity — and the wind blew the smoke on them.”
DEQ staff notes show they investigated the 2007 complaint but were unable to verify its claims.
Another anonymous complaint came in 2013, claiming Bullseye had been expelling powdered glass waste into the air: “It’s shoveled up but depending on weather a lot of it is carried off by the wind into the air. Concern for exposure to neighboring houses and businesses.”
The 2013 complaint was forwarded to Bullseye, which responded by connecting additional ventilation to its existing baghouse with the aim of reducing emissions.
It wasn’t until October 2015 that state regulators placed an air toxics monitor nearby. That came nearly a year after U.S. Forest Service researchers first shared with them that they’d found a cadmium hotspot in Southeast Portland, which was centered on Bullseye Glass.
Edmonds said none of the complaints up that point were founded, and that the company “was regularly inspected and determined to be in compliance with its air discharge permit.”
Before news of Bullseye’s toxic emissions broke in February, state regulators received one more complaint in December 2015.
Portland State University professor John Bershaw rode his bike past Bullseye Glass daily. He noticed something was not quite right about it.
“There is often a strong smell that seems to be coming from Bullseye Glass that we ride through and breathe daily. I do not recognize the smell, but it is strong and unique. I am concerned because I do not know what I am breathing. I hope that it is harmless, but I do not know,” Bershaw wrote.
He then asked: “Does the DEQ have any information on this smell and/or the air quality at this location? If not, is there any way to test the air to make sure it’s healthy for those of us who are bike commuting, walking, and living in the area?”
By the time DEQ received Bershaw’s complaint in December 2015, the agency had Forest Service data that pinpointed Bullseye Glass as the source of emissions causing a cadmium hotspot in Southeast Portland, and it had an air quality monitor in place to gather more information. In fact, by September 2015 DEQ staff had already contacted Bullseye about the Forest Service’s findings and further investigation.
Bershaw received none of this information. He received a confirmation the agency had received his complaint and some basic information about Bullseye’s permit available on the agency website. That was the extent of his correspondence with the Department of Environmental Quality.
After reviewing public records on Bershaw’s complaint, Bullseye’s Edmonds said via email that he didn’t have any information and referred a reporter to the Oregon DEQ.