Seals orders County staff to make no public comments about suspicious glasses, emails show
By RON AIKEN
Despite learning that 10,000 pairs of eclipse glasses purchased by Richland County are likely Chinese-made counterfeits it bought online from a third-party vendor whose accompanying certificate of safety is for a different product than what the County purchased, was done by a Shanghhai firm not accredited to issue international certifications and whose results have been publicly debunked and disavowed by both the American Astronomical Association and the company that commissioned it, County Administrator Gerald Seals on Tuesday told County Council he would not issue a recall nor advise residents against their use, internal emails obtained by Quorum show.
“The glasses purchased by the County are certified,” Seals assured Council members in a Tuesday afternoon email on the heels of a report that morning in the (Charleston) Post & Courier that raised questions about the legitimacy of the glasses’ International Standards Organization (ISO) certification and complaints last week by Councilman Jim Manning about a lack of communication from Seals and public information specialist Beverly Harris about the manufacturer.
“The eclipse glasses purchased by the County have the ISO logo, and the County has received a statement from the manufacturer attesting to their 12312-2 compliance.”
Seals stated he saw no need for a recall simply due to “an undercurrent of fear (that) now exists concerning the eclipse glasses purchased by the County.”
“Therefore, I believe that the prudent course of action for the County to take is to ‘NOT RECALL’ the County purchased eyewear.”
Seals blames the “undercurrent of fear” on Manning, who returned his allotment of 500 glasses to the County Monday afternoon and made the County’s legal department notarize a statement acknowledging receipt of his allotment “Citing safety concerns, namely that Administration has failed to adequately address the issue of the ISO certification and lack of a qualified supplier,” Deputy County Attorney Elizabeth McLean wrote.
“A member of County Council distrusts the County purchased glasses and has so informed the public through the media,” Seals said, before ordering a gag order on any further communication to the media about the matter.
“Any commentary from staff, no matter how valid, simply presents the County in conflict with itself, leaving the public to ‘bring order to the apparent chaos.’
“I just followed our own instructions and checked to see if there was a manufacturer listed and phone number, and there was nothing on them,” Manning said. “The more questions I asked, the quieter Gerald (Seals) and Beverly (Harris) got about it and the madder it seemed like they got that I was asking questions in the first place.
“I’m not comfortable giving my constituents glasses that no one can prove to me are safe. I’m just not going to do it, and I can’t get over the fact that our staff doesn’t care enough to do something about it and tell people. They want it to go away.”
During a week that began with extreme public embarrassment for the County and Seals when Assistant County Administrator Kevin Bronson resigned under pressure Monday morning in the wake of a scandal first reported by Quorum, Seals decision to prioritize the County’s public image over public safety means that County is actively refusing to share — if not outright covering up — information it now possesses that the glasses it purchased in fact have zero safety certifications, meaning the County can offer zero guarantees that the glasses will not cause permanent damage if worn to view Monday’s eclipse.
‘SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THOSE GLASSES’
For the past few months and increasingly so in recent weeks, Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society has taken the lead on investigating what he calls a “flood” of Chinese knockoff glasses into a niche market that for decades has been dominated by a handful of respected manufacturers around the world whose output more than satisfied amateur demand.
The scale and scope of the American eclipse, however, has caused unprecedented numbers of fake glasses to be manufactured (mostly in China) and sold online — glasses that often come with pirated paperwork and are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish from glasses that meet ISO standards for safety.
Speaking exclusively to Quorum Wednesday evening from Seattle, Feinberg said the problem is enormous.
“The use of ISO certificates on glasses that have not been manufactured to those specifications and that do not show a manufacturer’s name has just skyrocketed,” Feinberg said. “I’ve seen some at a nearby country store near my house.
“They’re all over, which is why it’s so important to follow the steps you see posted to determine their safety and for companies and local governments to do their own due diligence on what they buy and what they hand out as being safe.”
On Sunday, Amazon.com, the world’s third-largest retailer, issued refunds and recalls for eclipse glasses it thought were fakes or could not certify as meeting ISO standards, claiming the decision was made “out of an abundance of caution.” Locally, officials in Blythewood voluntarily recalled the 5,000 glasses it ordered when they learned they had not been ordered by an approved manufacturer as listed on NASA and the AAS’s sites.
Those decisions were made without 100 percent proof that the glasses bought or sold were safe. The suspicion alone was enough. Seals, however has chosen not to do the same even after the Post & Courier story proved that not only was the certification the County had for a different product (plastic, not paper, glasses) by Solar Eclipse International (SEI), but an SEI representative admitted to reporter Jamie Lovegrove that its paper glasses — the ones Harris thought she was buying — were still undergoing testing and had not yet received ISO certification.
Emails show Harris ordered the glasses with the County logo on them for $5,700 from the site EverythingBranded.com, a United Kingdom-headquartered company with an office in New York that specializes in putting corporate logos on thousands of products including speakers, totes. mugs and pens. On its website it lists as corporate clients BMW, Google, Tiffany & Co. and Dell Computers.
The glasses Everything Branded sold were touted as coming from Toronto-based Solar Eclipse International; however, AAS investigator and spokesperson Rick Feinberg said when he reached out to Solar Eclipse International, the company did not list Everything Branded as a vendor, meaning the chain of custody is broken and impossible to confirm or trace.
“Some vendors who say they’re buying from Solar Eclipse are not,” Feinberg said.
Making the County’s glasses even more suspicious, Feinberg said, was that when he reached out to Everything Branded to confirm where the company received its glasses from, he was given conflicting answers.
“The guy in England I talked to said he was buying from Solar Eclipse International, but then he sent me an illegitimate certificate,” Feinberg said. “I said I needed the name of the factory and a certificate from that factory. Instead they referred me to their sourcing company, and he said he didn’t have any paperwork but gave me the name of a factory in China that was a different factory than the one used by Solar Eclipse International.
Solar Eclipse International’s factory is one of just two factories in China that manufacture glasses to ISO standards, Feinberg said. The factory named by Everything Branded is not one of those two factories.
“If Everything Branded really bought them from SEI, then Everything Branded should have the same certificates as SEI. But they don’t, and that’s a problem.
“Something is wrong with those glasses.”
SEBO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL
Another reason for suspicion is the author of Solar Eclipse International’s original certificate, the one originally commissioned for its plastic glasses and given by Everything Branded to Harris and Richland County. The company that produced it, SEBO Testing, did not provide data on its report.
“You don’t see numbers, facts, you only see the words ‘pass’ or ‘comply,'” Feinberg said. “That raised an alarm for me. I could find no evidence that SEBO was accredited to test eclipse viewers for compliance with ISO standards.
“As far as I’m concerned, the SEBO document is worthless because it has no data and is not accredited.”
To Solar Eclipse International’s credit, Feinberg said, when he relayed those concerns to them the company took immediate action.
“They said, ‘OK, we’ll get them re-tested,’ which they did,” Feinberg said. “They had their paper and their plastic glasses re-tested, and both passed, which is why they’re now both on the list as of the past couple of days.”
On the front page of its website, Solar Eclipse International posted an apology to vendors or customers who may have been misled.
“Due to the misappropriation of certificates in the marketplace, we’ve withdraw(n) the previous certifications.”
Feinberg said SEI’s responsiveness has been helpful to his ability to identify potentially counterfeit and fake glasses.
Since SEI doesn’t use the SEBO certificate anymore, when I’m shown a SEBO certificate as proof that glasses are from SEI (which Richland County did and Seals stands by), I have serious concerns.”
Feinberg said he doesn’t understand why Richland County doesn’t share those concerns enough to take the information about giving away what likely are counterfeit glasses with potential safety problems more seriously.
“If you’re not concerned after you find out the certificate you’ve been given is bogus, you’re sticking your head in the sand,” he said. “If you don’t know they’re legitimate — and it’s very clear we don’t know in this case — you should not be giving them out to people.”
‘EVERYONE IS A VICTIM’
While its not impossible that the glasses were made safely even if they came from an unverified Chinese factory, the fact that no paper trail exists to prove Richland County’s glasses were made to ISO safety specifications and that the very trail itself is fraudulent should give County leaders pause, Councilman Seth Rose said, not just for safety reasons but for legal liability.
“When this issue was brought to Council to fund and we refused to do it, one of the issues I raised was ‘If we hand out glasses that purport to be safe, they aren’t safe and citizens are harmed, we’ve now opened up Richland County — and by extension the taxpayer — to civil liability,” Rose said.
“We’re putting the taxpayer on the hook. Council voted not to chip in on the glasses. Gerald Seals did this on his own, so it was kind of a surprise when I saw glasses were being issued. My concern then was ‘What if (the glasses) were defective?’ I didn’t think that maybe we could have bought and passed out glasses that were possibly counterfeit with no way of verifying they’re safe.”
“Just in principle, if someone uses eclipse glasses given to them by someone that turn out not to be safe, that someone is potentially liable to legal action,” Feinberg said. “They’re certainly open to it, which is why the ISO standard was created in the first place, to protect people.”
In the end, Feinberg said, entities like Richland County and even Everything Branded are victims.
“Someone can think they’re buying from a legitimate vendor but not be,” Feinberg said. “It’s not foolproof.
“I think everyone stuck in this (bad situation) now is a victim,” Feinberg said. “And of course the worst victims are the end users who may be exposing themselves to an unnecessary risk of eye damage.”
“I don’t believe Richland County perpetrated anything when they purchased them. What they do after once they know something is wrong is something else.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, Quorum shared its findings and Fienberg’s latest information with Seals, Harris and all of County Council in an email seeking a statement prior to this story’s publication on whether or not Seals still encourages or now discourages residents to wear the County-provided glasses.
Quorum has yet to receive a response, and the County has issued no recall.
The last public statement issued by Richland County about the glasses came Monday evening. It stated what Seals repeated to Council the next day, that the County’s glasses “meet the standards for safety” set out by AAS and that the glasses have the appropriate ISO number printed on them.
Left out, of course, was that the County has no proof whatsoever they were manufactured to those specifications.
In his email to County Council Tuesday afternoon justifying his decision not to recall the glasses, Seals argued they are safe because they “passed” the AAS guidelines for self-testing glasses listed on its website.
When staff took the glasses outside and tested them, Seals said, “Staff was unable to see anything through the solar filters on the glasses except the sun itself when looking through the glasses.
“All sources of light (e.g., the sun, office lights, reflections of the sun off of cars) appeared quite dim or nonexistent through the glasses. The solar filter on the glasses produced a comfortable view of the sun, surrounded by a dark sky.”
While helpful, Feinberg said, those guidelines were never meant to replace accurate, scientific testing.
“The one and only way to know your glasses are safe is to have them tested or know that they were tested,” Feinberg said. “If you don’t know that, you can look through them and they may be very dark and the sun may look OK.
“All that tells you is that the image is comfortable. It doesn’t tell you whether you’re safe.”
Neither does — or will — Richland County.