‘Disgusted’ residents sound off on Portland air pollution

SALEM — Activists on Tuesday accused state regulators of dragging their feet after discovering serious air pollution in Southeast Portland and beyond, some of them telling lawmakers they could face life-threatening ailments.

Worried residents told a House committee they’ve lost faith in the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s ability to keep the public safe in light of revelations that two Portland glass companies released toxic heavy metals into the air.

“This past month I had three trips to the ER for not being able to breathe right,” said Sarah Livingstone, a Portland resident who said she lives five blocks from Bullseye. “I currently cannot still take a deep breathe and am having a lot of pain. My doctor scheduled an x-ray next month to make sure it’s not cancer.”

There were tears and raised voices in the meeting as lawmakers tried to grasp the spiraling public health crisis.

The state has advised some 10,000 people who live within a half-mile of Bullseye and Uroboros, another glass company in Northeast Portland found to be emitting metals, not to eat vegetables from their gardens. Health officials have offered to pay for residents’ urine testing if they cannot afford it.

“There are a lot of people feeling rightly upset and worried,” said Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland. “A business can’t poison the community it operates in and expect the community to support it.”

Department director Dick Pedersen conceded that the revelations about Bullseye Glass — believed to have released toxic amounts of arsenic and cadmium — exposed blind spots in the state’s air quality monitoring.

It was the U.S. Forest Service, not state regulators, who discovered the pollution.

Oregon regulators learned in May that federal researchers found heavy metals in moss samples but didn’t do their own tests until October. When the results for Bullseye came back in January, they showed 159 times the safety goal for arsenic and 49 times the safety goal for cadmium.

Pedersen, in his testimony, said the department recognizes “this regulatory gap that we have between air toxics and our regulator control,” and would adopt new rules next month to deal with the problem.

He said the department is making a list of facilities permitted to release chromium compounds and requested $1.5 million to pay for more air monitoring.

But that did little to comfort dozens of residents who bused to the Capitol to testify.

In an interview, Livingstone said doctors discovered fluid in the lining of her lungs on Jan. 23. They told her and her husband to cancel plans for a second child.

“I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under my feet,” she said. “It totally has messed up my life plans.”

Another resident, Mary Postlethwaite, said she believes pollutants near her home have caused innumerable health problems.

“I am disgusted with the state of Oregon,” she said. “We can’t afford to live in the west hills. We have to live here, and we get treated like dirt and that’s not OK.”

On Sunday, a Bullseye co-owner sent a letter to Pederson saying the company would temporarily stop using certain chemicals. 

“We have already agreed to suspend the use of cadmium, arsenic and hexavalent chromium while we work with DEO and OHA to better understand the data related to recent environmental monitoring,” Daniel Schwoerer wrote. 

On Monday, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking for help.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury say they are exploring a local air quality agency independent from state control. Gov. Kate Brown said last week she expected “rapid action” from environmental regulators and more money from the legislature to deal with air pollution.

At the hearing Tuesday, activists said the state should adopt stricter safety standards.

“With Washington and California far ahead of us, it’s time to ask whether Oregon and its DEQ are able to act differently to protect public health from harmful air pollution,” said Mary Peveto, president of Neighbors for Clean Air. “And if they’re not, it’s time to ask whether DEQ is the right entity to hold polluters accountable and protect our communities’ public health.”