Stained glass is about to get a lot more expensive for churches

As EPA concerns raise the cost of art glass, churches put windows on hold.
Published June 9 2016
Updated June 10 2016

Three 18-foot holes stare out from the massive concrete structure that will become St. Stephen Catholic Church's new sanctuary in Riverview.

They were meant to hold images of the Eucharist, an elaborately decorated cross and St. Stephen clasping his hands in prayer as he readies himself to be stoned to death.

The church has never had stained glass windows before, and these were perfectly positioned to follow the trajectory of the sun as it rises and sets.

But now church officials don't know when, or if, they'll ever be filled with stained-glass depictions of those sacred images.

Stained glass windows are becoming too expensive for the church and everyone else, the result of an anticipated crackdown from the Environmental Protection Agency on glass manufacturers.

Those three windows, already designed by artists at Pharrmoors Studios in Orlando, may now have to be made with more expensive imported glass.

"It's really put this out of range for us, unless we have some generous donor," said the Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor of St. Stephen's. "We can open the church with just clear glass, but it would sure be nice if we could have something there."

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The EPA crackdown on glass manufacturing regulations stems from a February investigation into high levels of cadmium — a heavy metal that can cause lung cancer — and other toxic heavy metals found in the air around two glass factories in Portland, Ore.

But those are also the metals that add color to stained glass, which is delivered in squares and then melted and shaped by artists and workers.

Since 2007, EPA regulations have required that furnaces producing glass 24 hours a day, seven days a week must be equipped with industrial filters that prevent up to 99 percent of pollutants from escaping smokestacks. But small-batch furnaces, like those in specialty stained glass shops, were allowed to circumvent those rules.

Now the EPA may tighten those regulations, requiring all glass manufacturers that make more than 50 tons of glass a year with toxic chemicals to filter their exhaust.

"We haven't seen the full reverberations yet because it's so new, but it will definitely have an effect," said David Jedson of the Stained Glass Association of America. "It's not just the initial investment of emissions controls, which we fully support, but part of the problem is these companies haven't had any time to plan.

"It happened so quickly, and they've had trouble responding."

The EPA said the new rules are not final.

"EPA is continuing its review of art glass plants across the country," said spokesman Nick Conger in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Those changes factored into companies like Spectrum Glass, one of the biggest suppliers in the stained glass industry, closing shop last month after 40 years. The Washington manufacturer provided ready-to-shape glass to companies nationwide, but said sales have been weak since the recession, so it couldn't afford the new pollution controls required by the EPA. The company will cease operations by the end of July.

The repercussions of Spectrum's decision are being felt in Florida. Ken Casola said he typically buys colored glass from Spectrum for his Casola Stained Glass Studio in Naples. But he said the company's closing, and an anticipated increase in cost for domestic glass, could force him to import more glass from out of the country at a higher price.

"The whole industry is going to be affected by it; it's going to be a problem," said Casola who has been in the glass business since 1985. "I had been reading about it, but I didn't think it was really going to happen."

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Casola designed the stained glass windows at St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin. They depict scenes of Lazarus rising from the dead, Jesus distributing loaves of bread and fish to a hungry crowd, and water turning into wine at the wedding feast at Cana.

The church has 21 stained glass windows, costing a total of $400,000. They shape the church's atmosphere, block out traffic and a nearby laundromat, and keep parishioners from being blinded by the Florida sun.

There are four windows left. But the Very Rev. John McEvoy, pastor at St. Anne's, said it may be too expensive to finish the project.

"It took me a long time to raise the money, but I knew how expensive it would be," he said. "Now I think we're done for a while."

St. Stephen's plans to open its new $14 million building by spring 2017. But the Riverview church will be adorned with plain glass, not stained glass. Given the EPA's edict, officials don't know when they'll be able to afford their first stained glass windows.

That's why they're considering placing window clings depicting the stained glass designs on the three large windows. It's a temporary solution, until they can afford to replace them with the real thing.

The church's architect said the material costs could increase by as much as 50 percent over the original $240,000 estimate for stained glass. But if they can raise enough money, Schneider said, the colorful windows would transform the church and its congregation.

"They lift your spirits above the ordinary," he said. "The transformation of light into different colors is like the transformation of your spirit, your soul."