PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon health officials have cautioned residents within a half mile of two Portland glass factories not to eat backyard vegetables, even as authorities moved to quell public concern over elevated levels of carcinogenic metals found in the area.
The state said for the first time it would pay for urine screenings of Portland residents who couldn't afford to test for the presence of metals such as cadmium, which turned up in tree moss samples near Uroboros glass in North Portland and Bullseye Glass in Southeast.
Meanwhile, Oregon officials announced that an initial study of cancer data for the neighborhood around Bullseye Glass found no heightened incidence of the illness.
Oregon's top environmental regulator also made his first public remarks since his agency revealed Feb. 3 that it had detected levels of airborne toxic metals that raised people's cancer risks many times above state benchmarks.
"We as an agency are not doing enough to prevent — to reduce or prevent — emissions from these kinds of industrial facilities," said Dick Pedersen, director of the Department of Environmental Quality. "We need to do more."
The director promised to start working in March on changing state rules that made the pollution possible, while U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was eyeing tighter rules for glass makers.
Yet even as state and federal officials worked to demonstrate they were working on solutions, local leaders indicated that they are close to taking matters into their own hands.
In a letter to Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday slamming Pedersen's agency, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury said they intend to explore an autonomous air pollution agency for Portland that would supplant the Department of Environmental Quality.
"We believe, strongly, that your leadership will force long overdue accountability and action" for the state environmental quality department, the letter said.
The series of pronouncements by state and federal officials came ahead of a community meeting for North Portland neighbors of one of the glass companies, Uroboros.
The atmosphere contrasted starkly with the muted response that fueled outrage at a community meeting Feb. 9.
The first meeting drew 750 people from the area around Bullseye. Pedersen sat in the second row and did not speak.
At Thursday's gathering at Harriet Tubman Middle School, Pedersen sat with more than a dozen other environmental and health officials, this time facing the audience.
The public applauded after Pedersen acknowledged problems in regulations. But he continued to take criticism — and respond to it — on behalf of his agency in a question-and-answer session following other officials' presentations.
The Oregon Public Health Division said vegetables grown close to Bullseye Glass and Uroboros Glass could contain harmful levels of chromium, arsenic and cadmium.
The warning, coming in wintertime, carried more resonance than any immediate impact on eating. It marked a public acknowledgment of specific ways in which the health risks of toxic metal emissions could be tangible.
Some families are having urine tests done to check for harmful levels of the metals. Any test above a safe level will be sent to the Oregon Public Health Division, said Dr. Paul Cieslak, the state's director of communicable disease. He announced at the meeting that the state will pay for the tests for any families who need it, but asked that residents have the testing done by their physicians if they can.
The tests cost about $35 to $50 each, Cieslak said.
Regulators have known for years that Portland has high levels of the heavy metal cadmium in the air, but didn't know until 2015 what the likely sources were. They got their answer in May, when U.S. Forest Service researchers gave the department data from a research project analyzing metal concentrations in moss.
The department's own air monitoring found arsenic levels were 159 times higher than the state's safety goal in Southeast Portland and cadmium levels were 49 times higher. The department got the results Jan. 20 and told the public Feb. 3.
State regulators waited to tell the public because they didn't know if the high concentrations of cadmium in the U.S. Forest Service's data meant there was an actual risk to the public, Pedersen said on Thursday.
The state connected two stained-glass making companies to the pollution, both of which appear to have been following the law. That's the reason rules regulating them should be changed, both Pedersen and Wyden said in their public appearances.
But while the department and the community has been focused on air toxics coming from the two glass-making companies, there could be other sources of air toxics in the city, Pedersen acknowledged.
Recently released U.S. Forest Service data showed concentrations of lead in North Portland and of nickel in Southeast Portland that were higher than in the rest of the city. It's unclear what the sources of those metals are.
"This isn't just about glass manufacturing," Pedersen said. "This is about all industries that might emit toxics," Pedersen said.
Change also needs to happen at the federal level, said Wyden, the state's senior U.S. senator.
Though federal air pollution rules exist for glass manufacturers, they didn't apply to the Portland companies because they produce glass in batches, not continuously. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking into how to fix that loophole, Wyden said.
Local officials are not waiting for state or federal authorities to act, however. In their letter to Gov. Kate Brown, Kafoury and Hales wrote that the Department of Environmental Quality had not heeded their prior calls for action. Should that inaction continue, they wrote, they might consider using a provision of Oregon law to create an independent air quality jurisdiction.
The only such area in Oregon is in Lane County, though Washington and California are split up into many independent air quality districts.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com