Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Clean and Safe Waters Are Just Too Expensive for Portland

Portland’s City Council has shown it’s lack of vision and administrative ability again. Because of Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) lapses, the City of Portland has been fined $449,800 for 67 sewage spills dumped into various local waterways over a period of four and a half years.

The City, and so-called water “activists”, have been campaigning against EPA regulations that would require Portland to keep it’s water safety levels up to federal standards. Apparently EPA standards are becoming more and more lax under the Bush administration except when it applies to Portland’s water quality where they're way too strict.

But Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has also found big problems with Portland’s sewage and water quality standards. The DEQ cited some of its concerns about Portland’s lax water quality management:
Oregon environmental law prohibits sewage overflows to state waters because sewage contains disease-carrying bacteria which are a threat to public health and the environment. Many of these discharges occurred during dry weather, when there was a greater likelihood of human contact with sewage in local streams and the Willamette. Sewage is also a significant water pollutant that can harm aquatic life and cause public waters to be unsuitable for recreation, commercial and agricultural uses.

The City in it’s own defense, pointed out that it just didn’t have enough money to maintain its sewage system and didn’t want to raise rates to make sure that local rivers, streams and creeks were protected from its sewage spills. The Oregonian quoted Sam Adams, Commissioner in Charge of Portland’s BES, as saying:
"It's unacceptable, but it's also unavoidable in some cases because we have an older system," Adams said. "Over the past few years, the bureau has been loathe to turn in a lot of requests for maintenance because we already have the highest sewer rates in the country."

Imagine what Commissioner Adams would say to a businessman or homeowner who asked to be excused from Portland BES standards because “our rates are already too high”. That sort of logic only seems to work if you’re the City of Portland, which, coincidentally, has enough public money to fund political campaigns for commissioner and mayor. Just not enough to keep massive sewage from spilling into public waterways.

Just last May the City Council voted to provide public money for primary and general election campaigns up to $350,000 for candidates for commissioner and up to $450,000 for mayoral candidates. They set aside $1.3 million for this. But they (and Commissioner Adams who voted for the campaign financing plan) can’t find enough to stop major sewage spills.

Adding insult to injury, the spills were due to negligence. The BES, far from being caught by surprise about the dumps, instead of fixing known problems, had rigged up an alarm system for a portion of pipe they suspected might break. Unfortunately, the alarm system didn’t work properly. And 660,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the Willamette River in September.

Fortunately for Portland (and the rest of the state impacted by Portland's waterways), the State DEQ noticed the City’s increasing negligence in maintaining its sewage system. Oregonian reporter Anna Griffin writes:
[Jeff Bachman of Oregon’s DEQ] said DEQ took action now because in the course of rewriting a city permit, the agency's staff noticed the mounting number of spills. Three spills of 300,000 gallons or more of sewage in the past three months also served as a red flag, he said.

Why the City Council and Commissioner Adams didn’t also see these major spills as a red flag is a major competence question.

Apparently the bad news will continue. The EPA, with it’s too strict standards, is considering fining Portland for the basically unfiltered water coming from its street runoff sumps. It is also concerned that Portland’s major effort to upgrade it’s water quality equipment (the Big Pipe) is not up to federal clean water standards. Poor Commissioner Adams can only whine:
"After all this expense and effort, they're raising questions about whether we're doing enough," said Adams, who will update his City Council colleagues in an executive session today. "This could potentially cost us hundreds of millions of dollars."

Well, aren’t clean and safe waterways worth it? I thought that was the point of the EPA, DEQ, and BES. If the City Council can get its priorities straight and get some competent leadership, maybe Portland will have a chance at reasonable water quality.

No comments: