It was partly cloudy over Portland as I rode my bike towards Uroboros Glass Studio. Bumper stickers stuck on back of parked cars that I passed. One was a play on the famous “Keep Portland Weird!” sticker: it read “Keep Portland Sanctimonious!” I had to double-check its definition, and then I laughed.
Eric Lovell, the President of Uroboros, was not initially in a laughing mood when I met him — he probably hadn’t been for six weeks, since the Portland media embroiled Uroboros in a heavy metal emissions scandal. He was understandably leery of talking to me or anyone else in “the media,” but he welcomed me graciously, and his mood lightened up as we walked through the studio.
Before we go any further, here are two disclaimers. First, I was asked not to record any of our conversation, so I am writing this based on memory and quick notes. Second, glassybaby has bought color rods from Uroboros to make several beautiful colors.
Many news stories have lumped Uroboros together with Bullseye Glass and linked both to high concentrations of dangerous heavy metal particulates discovered in moss samples. If you know glassybaby, you know that two of our deepest motivations are healing and sustainability. So we were surprised when we saw one of our suppliers mentioned in connection with the scandal. Our business relationship with Mr. Lovell and the rest of Uroboros had been one of trust and respect.
After spending an hour at Uroboros, I can confirm that our trust in Uroboros was well-founded.
We donned clear safety glasses and walked around the studio’s cavernous main room. Heavy machine noises clanked and hummed off of thirty-five-foot ceilings. Men and women melted glass, moved glass, cut glass, packed glass, and picked up art from last weekend’s glassblowing class. Buckets and barrels and boxes stacked high on rows of racks. In the center was a huge, ponderous conveyor belt, an annealer, along which sheet glass moved as it gradually cooled.
Mr. Lovell pointed at the clear glass sheets and explained how the company was originally a side business, a way to support his glassblowing.
Then he described his own surprise that Uroboros was mentioned in connection to the pollution scandal. DEQ testing in 2009 and 2011 studied air quality ¼ mile east of Uroboros and found no direct link between its activities and heavy metals in the air. Moreover, they had received a “Silver Certification” for sustainability from the City of Portland, in 2012.
The news coverage linking the heavy metal particulate hotspots to Uroboros seems unfair. For one thing, Uroboros has not used arsenic at all for over twenty years. For another, the “glassified” form of cadmium that they had been using for red-colored glass was less dusty and volatile than the powdered form that is the industry standard. Third, while a moss sample taken 1/4 miles west of Uroboros indicated a cadmium hotspot, a different sample from 1/3 miles east of Uroboros showed average levels of the heavy metal.
Uroboros is located in a manufacturing neighborhood, where there are myriad possible sources of airborne metal. It seems that Uroboros has been the victim of highly-publicized conjecture.
Since the scandal hit the news, Uroboros has been compelled, as a precautionary measure, to suspend all use of cadmium and several other heavy metals. As a result, they cannot make red, yellow, green or orange glass, and have been rationing their inventory of those colors to make them last.
I asked Mr. Lovell how his business, his life’s work for 40 years, has been affected. He said it has been an “emotionally draining experience.” They have had to lay off six workers and shorten hours for many more. They have reduced their production levels, and they are currently working to develop and install, at enormous cost, what Mr. Lovell calls “world-class emission control equipment.” The filters will ensure that Uroboros’ emissions, already far below legal levels, are 100% safe, for perpetuity, for the environment and for their neighbors in Portland. Hopefully, Uroboros will be able to resume full production of all of their beautiful glass colors soon.