Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Urban Issues also Get Attention of Environmentalists

By Andy Kerr

Column #7 - Go to next column

Length: 747 words

Published: 24 October 1996, Wallowa County Chieftain

One is always biased by the view from where one sits, so it's somewhat understandable that many Oregonians outside the Willamette Valley might feel that environmentalists only target issues centered outside the urban growth boundaries.

Portland has a sewer system that is adequate, except when it rains. Then the surface runoff mixes with the sewage and overflows the system, dumping all into the Willamette River.

The city wasn't doing much about it, as the solution was first estimated at $1.3 billion. All politicians like to avoid controversy if they can (unless it helps to get elected) and the solution meant tearing up the streets, raising water and/or sewage rates and/or taxes; all never popular.

Northwest Environmental Advocates sued under the Clean Water Act, forcing Portland to clean up its mess. It's really quite reasonable: you make a mess, you clean it up (and don't whine about the cost). Portland is a rich city, rich enough to bailout the Portland schools struggling under property tax limitations. They have a large rainy day fund. It wasn't about money, but about power. Portland, as the largest city wields more power than nearly any other political entity in the state. As a result, the Department of Environmental Quality was doing nothing about the Portland sewage overflows. It took a lawsuit to get DEQ and Portland moving.

NWEA is engaged in lawsuits to force DEQ to do what it required under the Clean Water Act. Their first round resulted in 878 streams all around Oregon—urban, suburban and rural—being listed as "water quality limited." That means the stream was unsafe for people, fish and/or wildlife because of sediment, temperature or toxicity.

The state will likely be put on a reasonable schedule to set "total maximum daily loads," bureaucratize for who gets to pollute how much of what and when in each of the unhealthy streams. The goal is to restore the stream to legally defined "beneficial uses" (open sewers are not).

Even more powerful than the City of Portland is the Port of Portland. It recently became known that the de-icing fluid (the rest of us call it anti-freeze) used on airplanes at PDX is simply being washed into the Columbia Slough. The Port is unconcerned (read the poison warnings the next time you buy anti-freeze) and it doesn't want to spend the money, even though it is really rather rolling in it.

The seaport is profitable, as is the airport. Port officials are paid very well. The Port can afford to come up with a system that doesn't toxic dump anti-freeze into the environment. (Imagine the hell to pay if your mechanic dumped your old anti-freeze in the creek?) Pittsburgh, for example, set up a collection and recycling system.

If PDX must charge the flying passenger more, so be it. It's a cost of flying that should be borne by those who fly, not unlike the cost of cleaning up livestock-caused water pollution that should be borne by those who make it.

The Port of Portland is flexing its muscle to get the federal taxpayers to fork over hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to dredge the Columbia. The ships are getting bigger and so must the channel proclaims the Port.

There are some problems. First, the Columbia Estuary is the major settling ground all the toxic crap that enters the waters of the Columbia Basin (even from the Wallowa Valley 700 miles up river). Loads of dioxin (the most deadly cancer-causing agent known), toxic metals and other nasties are resting in the mud that the Port wants to displace for the super-freighters.

Second, estuaries are the most biologically productive ecosystem and we've been wiping them out with abandon the last few centuries. We need more, not less, estuaries.

Third, why should taxpayers should pay through the nose to keep the port in Portland? Let the users pay. Portland was established where it was because was a port to the ships of the day. Improvements in rail shipping, containerization and super-ships now favor naturally deepwater ports like Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver (BC) and Astoria. Other cities, large and small, east and west, no longer exist for the reason for which they were founded. They had to change or die.

It makes little sense for all of us to pay economically and environmentally so Portland can try to compete against inherently superior economic and ecological alternatives.

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