Owens Brockway impacts air quality across North and Northeast neighborhoods

By Becca Bowe, EarthJustice.org

A new report released by a group of clean-air advocates highlights the ongoing health risks posed by air emissions from the Owens-Brockway glass recycling plant in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood. Despite an enforcement action from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and operational changes that took one furnace offline, the facility continues to release harmful amounts of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and lead into the surrounding environment, impacting three nearby schools and a park where youth routinely play soccer and get exercise on playground equipment. Youth returning to school nearby the facility this fall face a higher health risk of respiratory illness.

“The Owens-Brockway facility has been putting schoolchildren attending a number of local schools in danger for years,” said Gregory Sotir, a retired educator with the Cully Air Action Team. “Elevated pollution levels from the facility fall disproportionately on BIPOC youth. They are experiencing higher risks of asthma and other respiratory illnesses because of unfiltered pollution from Owens-Brockway.”

The report presents the results of the first publicly available air-modeling study ever conducted for Owens-Brockway, which does not follow the same set of air regulations as similar emitters because it was built before the Clean Air Act took effect in 1978.

“Even though Owens-Brockway has retired one of its glass-melting furnaces, modeling results show that it still releases enough pollution to exceed national ambient air-quality standards for key pollutants that cause asthma and other respiratory problems,” explained Ashley Bennett, senior associate attorney at Earthjustice.

“It’s been clear for years that this facility is pumping many different kinds of harmful pollution into the Cully neighborhood,” said Mary Peveto, executive director of Neighbors for Clean Air. “But we have yet to see DEQ take effective action to rein in the pollution or see the facility take any voluntary steps to filter the emissions.”

The report also includes stories told by two Latinx mothers residing in Cully, who are concerned about their children’s exposure to hazardous air.

“The pervasive pollution from Owens-Brockway is an environmental justice problem that disproportionately impacts communities of color, and low-income folks,” said Sergio Lopez, the energy, climate and transportation program coordinator at Verde.

The Department of Environmental Quality recently issued an enforcement order against Owens-Brockway, which included a $1 million fine. Advocates say Owens-Brockway should do more to clean up the air in Northeast Portland. Community organizations who collaborated on this report have called on the company to install pollution-control technologies — the only effective way to reduce air pollution from melting glass.

“There’s an opportunity here for Owens Brockway to work with residents of the Cully neighborhood and implement measures to address the significant issues raised by this report, ensuring clean air for the families who live here,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “That would be good corporate citizenship — good for business, and good for the community.”

“We recognize that Owens-Brockway plays a significant role in our state’s recycling economy by recycling glass bottles,” said Jamie Pang, environmental health program director at Oregon Environmental Council. “Ideally, that would continue but the plant must operate within the confines of the Clean Air Act and protect public health if it truly wants to call itself a ‘sustainable’ business.”

The report is a collaboration by Cully Air Action Team, Verde, Neighbors for Clean Air, Oregon Environmental Council, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Portland Clean Air, and Earthjustice. Photo courtesy EarthJustice.org.