The Northwest’s art glass industry is under the gun over what it’s putting in the region’s air. Portland-based Bullseye Glass is in the midst of a 10-day production moratorium and is cutting back staff. Last week, facing similar pressures, a Washington-based company decided to shut down for good.
Since glassmaking emissions came to public attention in February, Oregon’s DEQ has had four air monitors cranking out weekly measurements around Bullseye’s Southeast Portland glass factory.
Readings at a neighboring day care on May 9 and 10 were three and four times DEQ’s 24-hour benchmark for exposure. DEQ’s Jennifer Flynt told OPB the agency acted immediately after analyzing the data.
“We had to act immediately,” Flynt said. “We were very concerned about the data.”
DEQ’s cease-and-desist order prohibits Bullseye from making glass with a list of 10 metals. The list includes arsenic and cadmium, which have been the subject of much discussion since winter. But it also includes materials such as cobalt and lead, which DEQ had not previously acted to curb. Bullseye had been the subject of complaints for years, but DEQ has only recently begun to take a hard stance.
Bullseye’s sales director, Jim Jones, says DEQ’s actions suggest the agency is more interested in shutting the company down than dealing with the emissions at hand.
“They could have just picked up the phone, called us and said, ‘We have a concern’, and we would have stopped using lead, like we have many other metals,” Jones said. “But we are planning on moving forward. It’s getting more and more difficult to move forward.”
Jones says Bullseye is starting to cut back employees hours to the point that 15 production positions are idle. While these workers aren’t being let go, per se, Jones says the company expects some employees won’t be able to afford the furlough, and will leave.
Bullseye is far from the only glassmaker in trouble. Based about 20 miles outside Seattle, Spectrum Glass is a slightly different business - it’s larger, and makes more products for glassblowers, whereas Bullseye is deep in the fused glass market.
Last week, Spectrum announced it will shut down operations this summer, citing a combination of sluggish sales since the recession and the regulatory pressure.
Until this spring, the widely-shared perception was that Spectrum did not have an emissions problem.
“They were in compliance with all their permits,” said Joanne Todd of Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which enforces federal and state laws for air toxics in the Seattle area. But Bullseye’s problems prompted the EPA to re-examine exemptions for glassmakers.
In mid-April, the agency determined Bullseye did not qualify for an exemption to national standards.
Todd says Puget Sound Clean Air followed up to figure out what that new precedent would mean for Spectrum. “What we were looking for was extra information to find out whether they needed to comply with the rule from the EPA which we had felt up to now they were exempt from,” Todd said.
Before any regulatory action was taken, Spectrum apparently decided the writing was on the wall and called it quits. Now artists and sellers of glass are facing a glass apocalypse.
When Spectrum made its announcement it would end its 40-plus years of production by July, Andrew Lueck didn’t wait to head north.
Andrew Leuck “We’ve made sure to stock up on Spectrum for summer. I’ve been to Seattle twice in the last week, picking up two tons each trip.”
Lueck is the studio manager for Firehouse Glass, a fixture in Vancouver, Washington art scene. One recent afternoon, Leuck watched glassblower Dana Blair work a blob of molten glass into the shape of a lily.
Andrew Lueck “So she’s going to cut that down the middle and pull it all the way out. You just saw her pop the end open. Now she’s going to get her scissors out and cut it straight up the center.”
The glass came from Spectrum. Yet Lueck is philosophical about Spectrum going out of business.
“This type of thing happens in the industry where either furnace will go down for a company. Somebody else usually picks up the slack.”
Aloha glass artist Bob Heath is less optimistic. He’s one of many glass artists who feel DEQ has moved the goal posts on glass makers.
“It’s been both scary and frustrating,” he said. “Scary because I think there’s a legitimate concern we’re going to lose both [Bullseye and Uroboros] factories. What I’ve been seeing about the problem that started all this I think has gotten blown way out of proportion. They’r getting criticized for things that are unfair or unfounded.”
Heath is mindful of what he saw at this year’s Glass Craft and Bead Expo in Las Vegas. “It’s gotten smaller over the years. There are fewer vendors, fewer attendees,” he said. I attribute that to a lack of people having the ability to spend money on art glass as a hobby, and buying art class from people who are making it.”
Outside of glass circles, Jessica Applegate of the Eastside Portland Air Coalition says her group is very happy about the cease and desist order.
“No one wants to see any business fail,” Applegate said, “but it’s unconscionable they’ve gotten away with what they have gotten away with. Frankly they’ve lost my trust, and I wouldn’t be sad if they went out of business. ”
The Coalition is going to try to fund independent monitoring for glassmakers who stay in business.
The DEQ says its committed to keeping air monitors in place near Bullseye for the foreseeable future to continue testing.