A Toxic Tale

The business community responds to growing concerns about air quality.

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Dan Schwoerer, CEO of Bullseye Glass Company, is still reeling from the shock of being at the center of a public health scare over high levels of toxins found near his glassmaking facility in southeast Portland. In the weeks following the news in early February that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had found elevated levels of cadmium and arsenic near his factory, Schwoerer has dealt with a bevy of regulatory inspections, angry neighbors breaking windows, a media backlash and personal attacks.

“I have had death threats,” says Schwoerer, gesturing to the phone on his desk from which he received three to four threatening calls. A female customer who spoke up for the company also received a physical threat. “It is wacko,” he says in disbelief.

It is a business’s worst nightmare. The company faces a class action lawsuit launched by Portland residents; millions of dollars in legal fees and costs for installing new emissions controls; an estimated $2 million loss in sales this year; and untold damage to the company’s reputation.

Bullseye Glass is not the only Portland company to come under recent scrutiny for toxic chemical releases. The DEQ also found elevated levels of toxins near Uroboros Glass Studios, another glassmaker in North Portland. The regulator required both glassmakers to install pollution control equipment and apply for new air permits. It also delayed issuing a new air quality permit to Precision Castparts in southeast Portland because of concerns over toxic chemical releases near the plant.

The outcry over toxic hotspots also shows serious flaws in regulations aimed at controlling industrial emissions. Both glassmakers had permits to emit hazardous air pollutants and were in compliance when high levels of toxins were found near their facilities. The DEQ is overhauling its industrial air toxics program in response to the health concerns.

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Inside Bullseye Glass Factory

The public’s outrage over health concerns associated with Bullseye mirrors similar scandals nationally. The health crisis from lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s water system earlier this year put the spotlight on toxic pollutants and their implications on people’s health. It has helped trigger growing concern and awareness about toxins that are released into the environment.

The controversies demonstrate a clear case for businesses to go above and beyond regulations to reduce their use of hazardous pollutants. Bullseye Glass showed that even if companies comply with pollution controls, they still face risks to their brand. Businesses that have invested in new and innovative ways to control their release of toxins can be at a competitive advantage by showing their products were produced sustainably.

Oregon has the third largest population at risk of excess cancer due air pollution, behind only California and New York, according to the U.S. EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment. It is a statistic that is at odds with the state’s reputation for its green credentials, and Portland’s world-renowned brand as a sustainable city with cycling infrastructure, street cars and a progressive urban growth boundary policy.

“Portland is riding on its laurels with bike lanes,” says Scott Taylor, CEO of Green Endeavor, a firm that advises companies on how to replace hazardous materials used in industry. The city’s sustainability brand is a “cop-out,” he says, and exposes a lot of “greenwashing” when events like Bullseye Glass come to light.

The state’s renowned microbrewery industry is an example of a sector that often calls itself green and brands its products as organic, but at the same time uses chemicals to clean tanks, pipes, bottles and equipment. These include caustics and acids, which are used to remove proteins and mineral build-up. “There is a disconnect between the CEO who is all about green — it is in their mission statement and the guy on the shop floor who is throwing the chemicals out in the sewer,” says Taylor.

Chris Swersey, supply chain specialist at The Brewers Association, says all breweries use ‘food grade’ chemicals for cleaning equipment, which are prepared to much higher purity levels than non-food grade equivalents and do not contain heavy metals. “Our members are very conscious that they have a duty to protect their local environment, and to produce great beer,” wrote Swersey in an email. “Solutions come in the form of procedures to remediate wastewater, capital investments in treatment facilities and exploring the use of different cleaning chemicals.”

He adds most brewers he is aware of have reduced their use of water and chemicals “both to reduce cost, as well as to reduce their impact on the environment and their communities.”
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Bullseye Glass Factory recently installed a new baghouse on one of their furnaces.

The use of toxic pollutants is not just a problem in Portland. Paper products companies based outside of the city are large emitters of air toxics. Two of the state’s top five facilities for releasing and disposing hazardous pollutants in 2014 (the most recent data available) are pulp mills – Georgia-Pacific Toledo and Cascade Pacific Pulp’s mill near Halsey, according to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, a database of the business sector’s toxic chemical releases.

C.J. Drake, spokesman for Georgia-Pacific’s Toledo paper mill, says in a written statement that the company is “always trying to figure out ways to create less waste and generate lower emissions in our operations, including TRI-reportable chemicals.” Drake says the company in 2015 switched to burning natural gas instead of solid fuels, such as plastics, to produce energy for the mill. This reduced by approximately half the amount of hydrochloric acid emitted from the mill.

Industry often cites excessive costs as a reason for not switching to greener products and manufacturing processes. But Taylor, whose company admittedly stands to benefit from industry’s use of more sustainable cleaning products, says that in the case of industrial cleaning, toxic chemicals can easily be replaced.

Caustic chemicals that businesses often use wear out machines prematurely. “Companies can do this and make money,” says Taylor.

To motivate businesses to reduce toxic chemicals, Taylor supports providing companies with tax subsidies. Financial incentives for businesses that reduce toxics are an overlooked area of the green economy. Most of the focus is on tax breaks for companies that reduce energy consumption and use alternative forms of energy, such as installing solar panels.

“Why wouldn’t you give a tax credit to a company that is getting rid of chemicals? It is easy to do,” says Taylor.

Companies that voluntarily remove hazardous materials from their products before regulations require them to do so find they are often at a competitive advantage. Remodeling company Neil Kelly removed formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, from its cabinet production 20 years ago. This was long before Congress passed a bill in 2010 requiring companies to limit the amount of formaldehyde emissions from wood products by 2013. CEO Tom Kelly says the cost of cabinet production went up 4%-5% after the company switched to an alternative material, but it proved a competitive advantage with customers at the time.

0616 Spotlight 02                                  Number of industrial facilities that have released chemicals that may pose a threat to human health and the environment.
                                  Source: EPA Toxic Release Inventory


“It is the responsibility of businesses to produce products that are healthy and good for customers,” says Kelly, who also chairs the Portland Development Commission. “It potentially limits liability they could face.”

Neil Kelly recently signed on with Declare labeling, a green certification initiative of the International Living Future Institute. Declare requires participants to disclose the full chemical composition of each labeled product and notes when an ingredient is in a ‘red list’ of substances that may not be used in construction.
As some companies move to decrease or eliminate use of toxic chemicals, community outreach and transparency can help smooth relations with residents worried about air quality in their neighborhood. A case in point is Vigor Industrial, the Portland-based ship builder headquartered on Swan Island. The company is one of the top five facilities in Portland for disposing or releasing toxic chemicals, according to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory Program.

After neighborhood groups expressed concern about the impact of emissions from the facility on people living, working and going to school in the area, Vigor signed a good neighbor agreement on April 12 with the community action group Neighbors for Clean Air to reduce emissions from stationary and mobile sources. Among the requirements of the agreement is that all vessels docked at Vigor’s shipyard shut down their engines and use electric power from the shore within 36 hours of docking. Vigor agreed to reduce emissions from sandblasting by at least 90%. It also agreed to monitor odor from its wastewater treatment.
The monitoring and recordkeeping Vigor agreed to is designed to provide the neighborhood group with accurate information about emission reductions.

“Businesses have a responsibility to the public to describe their emissions openly and accurately,” says Alan Sprott, vice president of environmental affairs. “The benefits of the emission reduction commitments incorporated into our NCA (Neighbors for Clean Air) agreement far outweigh the costs,” he adds.

Companies like Bullseye Glass that are caught in a whirlwind of public indignation do not have the luxury of time to smooth public relations. Managers at Bullseye Glass are scrambling to comply with requirements to control emissions. In April the company installed a pilot filtration system on one of its furnaces. The system, known as a baghouse, will test the impact it has on emissions levels. Managers are working on installing a larger system of baghouses on other furnaces.

The company is not fighting the new emissions controls, but it did oppose the amount of time it had to install those controls, says Jim Jones, director of sales at Bullseye Glass. “We immediately did what we were asked to do. It can be expensive but we weren’t fighting that. What we were fighting was the time,” says Jones. “Most companies in a hotspot were given three years to come into compliance.”

The glassmaker is under financial strain because it has to install costly emissions control equipment at a time when it has had to curtail production. “All of a sudden you are in a situation where you can’t make half your product line. And you have to make a major investment in emissions control,” says Jones.

The DEQ is working on new industrial air toxics standards that could require changes to how businesses control hazardous air pollutants. It is still unclear what implications the regulatory overhaul will have for industry. But it is certain businesses can limit risks to their brand by considering options for safer chemicals and manufacturing processes, and being open about pollutants, regardless of regulations.

“We have got to get the message out to industry that there are environmentally friendly options that are good for business. It has an impact on brand,” says Taylor.