Airborne Heavy Metals Cause Concern, Outrage in SE Portland

By Stephyn Quirke

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality made a public announcement February 3 that they had confirmed high concentrations of cadmium and arsenic in southeast Portland’s air.

The source, according to DEQ’s Dave Monro, was very likely Bullseye Glass – an art glass manufacturer that has operated near SE 20th and Powell Blvd. for over 40 years, and has expanded their operations several times over that period. Companies like Bullseye use toxic heavy metals to create unique colors they consider difficult to achieve with less harmful chemicals. The company is located on the same block as a daycare center, and is within a mile of several public schools, including Cleveland High, Abernathy Middle, and Winterhaven.

Concerned neighbors at Abernethy school
Concerned neighbors at Abernethy school

A second hotspot for cadmium was identified near Harriet Tubman Middle School in North Portland. The source in this location is a company called Uroboros Glass.

The DEQ, together with the Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County Health Department, announced a community meeting at Cleveland High School February 9. Due to the swift public backlash, DEQ encouraged Bullseye to suspend all use of cadmium and arsenic, and for Uroboros to suspend its use of cadmium (the company was not actively using arsenic). Both companies agreed.

According to the Oregon Health Authority’s lead toxicologist David Farrer, arsenic passes quickly out of the body, but cadmium tends to persist in the kidneys, and is best tested for with a urine test. The Multnomah County Health Department has since announced it will pay for urine tests for residents living near the glass factories.

At a community meeting the night before the public meeting at Cleveland High, about fifty residents gathered at the Esperanza Court Community Room to share concerns and strategize.

They heard from long-time community activist Mary Peveto of Neighbors for Clean Air, and attorney Mark Riskedahl of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. Peveto shared her experiences with the DEQ, and explained that although its employees have monitored the air in Portland for the past 10 years, they have yet to produce a single plan that would reduce air pollution.

Instead, the agency has largely limited itself to simply ranking pollutants in terms of their estimated public health impact. Many residents at the meeting were shocked to learn that DEQ gets about 95% of its funding directly from the industries it regulates – payments it receives for every pollution permit it gives out.

At a community meeting the next day at Cleveland High School, angry residents demanded answers – and actions – from the DEQ. The first person to testify was Jessica Applegate, a mother of two and an active member of EPAC. “We have been exposed for over 18 years. My entire child’s lifetime has been filled with this air,” she said. After announcing a list of demands and questions for all responsible government officials, Applegate concluded, “We just don’t wanna be placated with being ‘listened to’. We actually want real answers to this disaster.”

As previously reported in The SE Examiner (See “Toxic Air in the Rose City” June 2015), Portland has long-standing issues with air quality that are currently being studied by local scientists. Many neighborhoods dealing with local polluters have largely fought these battles on their own; though some pollution sources – like diesel exhaust – spread out across the entire city.

In addition to toxic hot spots from sources like Precision Cast Parts in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, communities have fought mercury burning at a crematorium in Montavilla, an oil refinery (American Petroleum) on Hayden Island, and ESCO steel in NW Portland. Now, with revelations of highly-concentrated heavy metals in SE and N. Portland, the public outcry against toxic pollution has reached fever pitch.

Within SE Portland, a group has sprung up called the Eastside Portland Air Coalition, or EPAC. Their first order of business (before they even came up with the name) was to present priority demands, and questions, to the DEQ at Cleveland High School.

One key question raised by EPAC related to Bullseye’s use of hexavalent chromium – a heavy metal described as “extremely toxic” by the EPA’s website, as well as a known carcinogen that targets the respiratory tract. At the time of the meeting, DEQ had not analyzed whether the two companies were releasing chromium-6.

As a result of outcry at the meeting, both Bullseye and Uroboros agreed to suspend all use of chromium on February 12 – at least for the time being. That same day, Senators Wyden and Merkley signed a letter with Representative Blumenauer asking the EPA to intervene, calling the situation a “public health emergency”.

Three days later, however, Bullseye co-owner Daniel Schwoerer told KGW that DEQ’s request to stop using chromium was “bizarre”, and the next day, Schwoerer told KATU he felt ‘unfairly targeted’. Before conceding, Shwoerer received a call directly from Governor Kate Brown.

Chromium-6 is one of the most famously dangerous substances in the country, and features heavily in the story of environmental activist Erin Brockovich, whose work was featured in the 2000 Julia Roberts film, Erin Brockovich. Chromium-3 can also transform into chromium-6 when burned through an oxidation reaction, and Bullseye’s furnaces are made to heat metals to temperatures surpassing 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Bullseye has told the public they are working with an environmental consultant to address these issues for the long term.

So far, residents have not been willing to wait. On February 16, dozens of community members marched to Bullseye’s factory wearing breathing masks, carrying signs that read “Our Community Is Not Your Dumping Ground”.

Through The Portland Mercury, residents had learned the company had neglected to install filters that would have captured much of the pollution now residing in the soil and bodies of people living nearby. As a result, many demanded that the company shut down all its toxic emissions until these filters were in place – chanting “Filtrate or Vacate” to drive their message home. Many residents brought vegetables from their gardens, asking company officials if they were willing to take the risk of eating them.

State officials confirmed their fears on February 18, warning residents within ½ mile from the two glass factories not to eat out of their gardens, as they could contain dangerous levels of cadmium, arsenic and chromium.

Susan Beal, an angry mother with a 7 year-old daughter at Abernethy Elementary, told The SE Examiner “I’m hoping all of us organizing as neighbors all over the city is the tipping point to finally get the stronger air quality regulations, across the board, that we all need statewide. Bullseye is just the tip of the iceberg, and all these industries need to be regulated safely. Washington and California both have far stronger environmental laws and we deserve them too.”

Some substances still used at Bullseye include nickel, lead, manganese, and cobalt. To date, parents nearby have confirmed medical tests showing children with elevated levels of cadmium. Multnomah County officials announced they would cover the cost of residents getting urine tests to check their exposure to cadmium.

After the protest, a second community meeting took place at Abernethy Elementary in Ladd’s Addition, where a packed house broke into six working groups before hearing from a legal team, Camela Raymond of EPAC, Mark Riskedahl of NEDC, and Mary Peveto of Neighbors for Clean Air.

Thursday, Feb. 18, Mayor Charlie Hales and County Chair Deborah Kafoury released a letter saying that if DEQ does not fix the glaring problems that has made Portland’s air so dangerous, they will start work to create a local air agency that does.

The latest revelations about toxic hotspots have centered primarily on SE Portland (near Bullseye) and N. Portland (near Uroboros). However, many other known hotspots exist throughout the city. Near Precision Castparts, residents are reporting a hotspot for arsenic and nickel.

This story is developing rapidly, and The Southeast Examiner plans to post updates to its website throughout the month. For other updates, readers are recommended to follow the facebook pages and email lists for Eastside Portland Air Coalition and Neighbors for Clean Air.

Airborne Heavy Metals Cause Concern, Outrage in SE Portland

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