Pioneering Water Pollution Control in Oregon
Carter, Glen D., Oregon Historical Quarterly
IN SEPTEMBER 1956, GLEN CARTER became the first aquatic biologist to work for the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA), the forerunner of the Oregon Department of Environ-mental Quality. When Carter joined the agency, it had a staff of fifteen to twenty, including professional engineers, chemists, bacteriologists, and office support personnel. At that time, the expression "environmental quality" was still unfamiliar to most Oregonians, and industrial wastes and raw sewage were commonly deposited in rivers and other waterways. Today, environmental quality is a household phrase among most Oregonians, and nearly a thousand professional engineers, chemists, geologists, bacteriologists, attorneys, office support personnel, and aquatic biologists are employed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Although federal environmental mandates and public education contributed to increasing concern about environmental issues and efforts to address them, the efforts of state agency staff in the field played a critical role in environmental cleanup. The scientists and engineers who worked for the OSSA used their knowledge and experience to establish an advanced, scientifically sound water-pollution control program. Carter and other agency personnel who inspected disposal sites did so without wearing protective clothing and respirators because the various health risks associated with these hazardous sites were largely unknown or minimized. Most of these people have since died, possibly victims of long and frequent exposures to hazardous industrial chemicals and wastes.
In this "Oregon Voices," Glen Carter describes water pollution problems that he encountered on the Willamette River while he worked for the OSSA. His memories represent only a small portion of the work he conducted throughout the state and indicate the magnitude of the task that he and the OSSA confronted. He also offers a picture of a river that is unfamiliar to many Oregonians. Although pollution and habitat destruction continue to strain the river, much has been done since the s to improve the health of the Willamette and other waterways in Oregon. Glen's story represents the efforts of one group that helped protect the Willamette River.
DURING THE LATE NINETEENTH and early twentieth centuries, Oregon's population and economy grew rapidly, devastating the state's rivers, lakes, and estuaries. Seemingly limitless in capacity, Oregon's waters were largely viewed as inexpensive, convenient disposal sites for an assortment of industrial, agricultural, and domestic wastes. (1) Chief sources of pollution were discharged from pulp and paper mills--located at Coos Bay, Lebanon, Salem, Newberg, Oregon City, and West Linn--and raw domestic sew-age discharged by nearly every city and town in Oregon. (2)
As early as the s, private groups such as the Izaak Walton League and government agencies such as the Oregon State Board of Health and the U.S. Public Health Service called for actions to address water pollution. In 1938, Oregon voters approved, by three-to-one, an initiative that would establish statewide water-pollution regulations and an agency to enforce them. The new law created the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Oregon State Board of Health, which was already responsible for directing and cooperating with county health departments on public health issues, including the regulation of drinking water quality. OSSA was given full responsibility for water-pollution control, including the enforcement of water-quality standards where domestic and industrial wastes were being discharged. (3)
A seven-member commission provided public oversight of the agency. Commission members included the OSSA-OSSA state health officer, the state engineer, the chairman of the Fish Commission of Oregon, and the head of OSSA. Three additional members, one from each congressional district in Oregon, were appointed by the governor to four-year terms. Harold Wendel, president of the Lipman-Wolfe department store, was chair of the commission for all of OSSA's existence. (4) The legislature provided funding for seventeen positions, including professional engineers, chemists, bacteriologists, and office support personnel. Full implementation and staffing was delayed by World War, however, during which time the agency employed only two engineers, Carl Green and Kenneth Spies. After the war, Curtiss Everts, an engineer, was selected as OSSA's first director and Kenneth Spies was deputy director.
During the first half of the twentieth century, water pollution had become a concern throughout the United States. State and local governments had few if any legal means to enforce water-quality standards, investigate water-pollution incidents, or prosecute water polluters. The federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 authorized the federal government to work with the states to develop comprehensive water-pollution control programs, establish a national water-quality data-gathering network, fund water-quality research and grants to states for water-pollution control programs, pro-mote interstate cooperation in water-pollution control, and promote uniformity among states regarding state water-quality standards and regulations. A decade later, the Water Quality Act of required states to submit water-quality standards--along with plans for implementing those standards--to the federal government for review and approval. If state standards failed to meet federal guidelines and criteria, or if a state failed to submit standards, the federal government imposed its own set of standards.
OSSA faced the enormous task of implementing and carrying out these federally mandated programs and regulations. Before it could even get started, the agency would have to re-evaluate and redefine its purpose, organize the necessary programs to initiate the cleanup, develop more advanced water-pollution control methods or improve existing ones to meet federal standards, and acquire technical and scientific staff to carry out the agency's mission. Water-pollution control in Oregon had entered a new era, one in which environmental science became the prevailing course of action for solving water-quality problems.
IN SEPTEMBER 1956, I JOINED the OSSA as the agency's first aquatic biologist. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, I graduated from California's Humboldt State College in 1950 with a bachelor of science degree in fisheries and wildlife management. I continued my education as a graduate student at Oregon State College under Roland Dimick, whose research on the heavily polluted Willamette River introduced me to the new science of applying biological concepts to water-pollution control. (5) Previously, pollution abatement had been viewed as an engineering problem.
Shortly after joining OSSA, I was put to work assessing water-quality problems throughout the state. OSSA headquarters were located in downtown Portland, with regional field offices in northwestern Oregon, Eugene, Medford, and Pendleton. Each regional office was staffed by an engineer and a support person. The first engineers assigned to field offices faced a wide variety of water-pollution problems and were responsible for enforcing both OSSA and Oregon State Board of Health statutes and rules. Along with OSSA engineers, especially those in the field offices, I began to identify and categorize reported water-pollution incidents.
Our mandate was to enforce state water-quality statutes and rules. OSSA's commissioners and agency head directed me and other staff to go after water polluters as if they owed us money. Harold Wendel, chairman of the OSSA Commission, urged us to focus on the biggest water polluters first, because that would do the most good for society. He told us not to worry about the cost because that was the agency's concern. He also told us to seek voluntary correction of water-pollution problems before resorting to legal enforcement. People outside the program may have perceived this as faint-heartedness, but it was really a matter of common sense and practicality; OSSA's budget allowed only $4,000, per biennium for legal services from the attorney general's office to take polluters to court.
As far as I can recall, OSSA never shut down an operation for water-pollution violations. We sometimes obtained court orders instructing polluters to "cease and desist" by a certain date, but the operations were never shut down. The one exception I remember occurred in 1969 when the governor's office ordered the temporary closure of pulp and paper mills on the lower Willamette River to give migrating salmon a better chance of survival. In nearly all cases, however, OSSA relied on education and working cooperatively with polluters to solve problems in a fair and reasonable manner without causing economic hardship or ruin. Strict, hardnosed sanctions against a polluting industry or company were rarely needed. OSSA's field staff identified the problems, worked with the polluter's staff to resolve them, and sent reports to OSSA management. OSSA managers were responsible for resolving political disagreements or initiating legal enforcement.
During the time I worked at OSSA, our office desks were seldom occupied. We were out in the field, investigating pollution incidents, talking to plant managers in their offices, or en route to the far-off corners of Oregon on week-long monitoring expeditions. By my own estimates, I traveled about a million miles on state business, wearing out nine vehicles in the process. My colleagues and I used to say: "We work days and drive nights." We often had to deal with problems without rules or statutes to guide us, without basic day-time and nighttime water-quality data and pertinent biological information, without assistance from other OSSA staff, without adequate laboratory sup-port, and without sufficient funding. We learned through trial and error, with an open-mindedness to adapt or improve as the need arose.
When I was called to investigate a pollution incident for OSSA, I would drive to the site and meet the supervisory staff of the alleged polluter. With permission, I would walk the site, make notes of my observations, and collect water and effluent samples. If this was prohibited, I would sample waters upstream and downstream of the alleged polluter's property. Following my on-site visit and a conference with supervisory staff at the site, I would deliver the samples to OSSA's laboratory for analysis and usually confer with my professional colleagues for their assessment. I would then prepare a written report for OSSA managers, using the laboratory test results, my on-site observations, the alleged polluter's story of the incident, and my conclusions and recommendations. Although OSSA could impose fines or other penalties for violating of water-quality standards, in most cases we handled the problem by getting the polluter to clean up its operation.
OSSA focused its monitoring efforts on the Willamette River, where most of the big industrial and municipal polluters were located. (6) The Willamette had long been used as a repository for raw sewage, industrial wastes, dead animals (including horses and cows), and just about everything else. By the time I was hired in 1956, fish kills were common in the river, massive rafts of decaying algae floated downstream, and a thick layer of bacterial slime covered much of the river bottom and shoreline. Rotting vegetation, bacterial slime, and countless dead fish produced highly unpleasant sights and odors. Large deposits of sewage sludge accumulated around sewage outfalls. (7)
The principal sources of pollution in the Willamette Basin were the pulp and paper mills, other wood products industries, and municipal sewage. (8) When I worked along the Willamette, my primary duty was to assess the pollution potential of wastes from pulp and paper mills and municipal sewage facilities. OSSA generally accepted that wastes had to be discharged into rivers but sought to lessen the impact by requiring polluters to discharge wastes during winter and spring, when river flows were highest. High flows diluted wastewaters enough to meet OSSA's water-quality guidelines. Other, relatively less significant pollution sources in the Willamette were agricultural activities, food-processing operations, and dredging.
FOR YEARS, CITIES AND TOWNS in Oregon, like those in the rest of the United States, routinely dumped their raw sewage into rivers, lakes, and estuaries. Other communities disposed of their sewage on land; but much of the waste, including its toxic components, was washed back into nearby rivers and other waterways during rainstorms or snowmelt runoff. These raw sewage wastes were loaded with organic matter, which, when decomposed by bacteria, sharply reduced the amount of oxygen in rivers or other waterways. Lack of sufficient oxygen caused fish and other oxygen-dependent aquatic organisms to suffocate. Sewage was also highly contaminated with toxic chemicals and pathogenic microbes capable of causing disease in humans. Great deposits of sewage sludge covered the bottoms of rivers and other waterways, obliterating habitat and other resources vital for a healthy river ecosystem. Communities that obtained their drinking water from rivers risked contamination from sewage discharged somewhere upstream.
Because Oregon's population was concentrated in the Willamette Valley, OSSA began its sewage-abatement efforts in that region. One of OSSA's first actions after it was established in 1939 was to notify municipalities and industries of the need for the primary treatment of wastes. Primary treatment allowed solid components in waste-water to settle in waste stabilization ponds, where the liquids were treated with a disinfectant such as chlorine to kill pathogenic microbes before they were discharged into the river. Although sewage liquids could still degrade river water quality consider-ably, the removal of solid wastes greatly lessened the overall impact. By 1957, all communities along the main stem of the Willamette except for Portland had primary treatment facilities. (9)
The effects of sewage and other pollutants were also related to water volume in the Willamette, which was affected by dams on its tributaries. Between 1940 and 1968, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed thirteen dams in the Willamette River Basin to provide flood control. Before the dams were built, there was extensive flooding of the valley floor nearly every year. Flood waters often spread more than one mile wide in places between Eugene and the Newberg Pool, a few miles south of Portland. Following the winter flood of 1950-1951 for example, I remember that we found juvenile Chinook salmon stranded in wheat-field depressions more than a mile from the main river channel.
These winter floods were trouble-some to farmers and lowland developers, but they also scoured and cleansed the riverbed. Winter flood flows removed industrial and domestic waste deposits that had accumulated on river bottoms during summer, when river flows at Salem would typically fall to around 1,500 cubic feet per second. Flood flows were especially important for flushing the New-berg Pool and the Portland Harbor zones in the Willamette River. Once the Willamette Basin dams began operating, high flows could also be maintained during the summer and early fall, when river flows normally diminished. Through a "gentleman's agreement" with the Oregon State Game Commission and the OSSA, the Corps of Engineers released reservoir waters at rates sufficient to maintain a minimum summertime flow of 6,000 cubic feet per second at Salem. Higher flows significantly improved water quality and allowed Oregon to meet state water-quality standards on the Willamette. (10)
In 1958, OSSA began to require secondary treatment of sewage wastes, which used bacteria to decompose both solid and liquid wastes in large, anaerobic (without oxygen) containers called digesters. (11) Bacterial digestion reduced the wastes to a nearly clear liquid that was stripped of most harmful substances. This liquid, after being disinfected, was either sprayed on land to fertilize nonfood crops or discharged into the nearest river or other waterway.
Cities and towns as well as industrial plants along the Willamette and its tributaries had to build modern sewage treatment plants based on secondary treatment methods, requiring immense capital expenditures. Industries could either build their own treatment plants or pay a fee to discharge their wastes to a publicly owned municipal plant. Oregon developed a priority system for communities to apply for federal money for plant construction based on need. Even with assistance from the federal government, many Oregon communities were hardpressed to pay for the expensive treatment systems. The City of Portland, for example, was so overwhelmed by the projected costs of sewage treatment that it obtained a restraining order against the state during the late 1950s, allowing the city to delay work for three years. (12) In most cases, OSSA staff did their best to accommodate communities that were financially strapped, setting intermediate sewage-treatment goals while the plants were being constructed. OSSA field staff also assisted communities with the development of their waste-discharge permits. Between 1940 and 1969, $300 million was spent to build sewage collection and treatment systems just to help clean up the Willamette River. (13)
Around 1968, as one of its last major actions, OSSA adopted rules that required industries and municipalities to obtain permits before discharging treated wastes into Oregon waters. These permits, usually renewed every five years, set specific limits on the quantity and quality of each component in the waste being discharged. Permits would be issued if it could be established that the wastes would be assimilated by the receiving waters to comply with water-quality standards and to protect fish and other aquatic life. In response to industries and municipalities that lobbied vigorously for the lowest possible waste-treatment costs, OSSA issued permits requiring only primary treatment. When it became apparent that flows in most rivers were too small to assimilate primary-treated wastes, particularly during low flows in summer and fall, the DEQ required more expensive secondary treatment as individual permits came up for renewal or as problems arose under the initial permits.
WOOD-PROCESSING MILLS IN Oregon, including sawmills and pulp and paper plants, were typically located on rivers and estuaries, and mill wastes were dumped into the water. Among wood-products operations, pulp and paper mills had the greatest impact on water quality. Sulfite mills, easily the worst offenders, were located in Lebanon on the South Santiam River; in Salem, Newberg, Oregon City, and West Linn on the Willamette River; and on Coos Bay. Each mill discharged twenty to thirty million gallons of liquid waste into rivers and estuaries every day. By comparison, a typical sewage treatment plant serving a community of fifty thousand people discharged ten million gallons of liquid wastes each day. (14)
Liquid wastes from sulfite mills were called cooking liquors. They looked like dark brown syrup and emitted a pungent sulfur smell. Great black plumes of waste liquors would extend for miles downstream of discharge pipes or spread out across the open waters of estuaries, creating a "biological desert" in which few aquatic plants and animals could exist. Highly enriched with wood sugars and other dissolved organic compounds, waste liquors provided an ideal food source for oxygen-consuming bacteria. Thick sheets of bacterial slime stretched across the bottoms of rivers and estuaries well beyond the point where the liquors were being discharged. Bacteria depleted the dissolved oxygen in the water, making the area largely uninhabitable for fish, insects, and other aquatic organisms. Voluminous outpourings of waste blackened the waters, eliminating aquatic plants that required sunlight for photosynthesis. The liquors, hot from the cooking process, sharply increased water temperature, resulting in a range of effects on aquatic organisms. Toxic chemicals used in the cooking process also killed plants and animals. Only the most tolerant, least desirable species--such as carp, suckers, and imported catfish--survived in the polluted waters. Even these so-called trash fish succumbed when conditions became intolerable for any aquatic life. Between 1956 and the mid-1960s, whenever I inspected the South Santiam River near Lebanon I would see silvery fish, probably salmon, swimming in erratic circles with their heads extended out of the black, deoxygenated water, trying to stay alive by gulping air.
The Kraft process offered less polluting ways to make paper and allowed for increased paper production. Kraft mills recovered and reused their cooking chemicals, removed environmentally harmful components from waste liquors, controlled noxious odors from cooking liquors to enhance air quality around mills, and recovered nearly all wood fiber in wash waters. In addition, a Kraft mill could produce about a thousand tons of pulp and paper each day, while a sulfite mill produced about two hundred tons. By the early 1970s, Kraft mills were sited at St. Helens, Springfield, Gardiner, Toledo, North Bend, Wauna, and Albany. Halsey, the last mill sited, was built in 1968.
Shortly after I started at OSSA, I was assigned the task of working with pulp and paper mills to find immediate ways to reduce their impacts on water quality. Because long-term, adequate waste treatment was still lacking in many cases, we appreciated even temporary solutions to water-quality concerns. Sulfite mills, for example, offered their waste-cooking liquors to county high-way maintenance departments for use as dust suppressants on unpaved country roads. The maintenance staff gladly accepted the offer, even placing orders for the toxic black liquor each spring. This practice kept a significant quantity of black liquor out of Oregon's rivers, and it improved air-quality conditions by reducing airborne dust, especially on logging roads and other unpaved thoroughfares. Later, when it became evident that rain and snowmelt runoff washed much of the liquor off roads and into lakes, rivers, and estuaries, the practice was stopped.
During the late 1960s, the Oregon Fish Commission planted about 300,000 coho salmon smolts in tributaries of the upper Willamette River. These fish, after migrating out to sea, were scheduled to return as adults in the fall and winter of 1969. After planting the fish in 1966, the Oregon Fish Commission warned pulp and paper mill managers and OSSA that unless the average oxygen concentration in the Willamette River was at least four parts per million, particularly in the reach that passed through the Portland area, the fish would be unable to continue upstream. The warning was appropriate: oxygen concentrations in the lower Willamette River during late summer and early fall, when the fish were beginning their upstream migration, was usually around two parts per million, with zero oxygen levels often recorded.
As returning adult fish began to enter the lower Willamette River in early fall 1969, the river's oxygen concentration stood at two parts per million or less. The fish tried to continue their upstream migration but were blocked by the river's low oxygen levels. Governor Tom McCall was asked to intervene on behalf of the fish agencies trying to protect the migration. He ordered the sulfite pulp mills at Salem, Newberg, Oregon City, and West Linn to close until after the fish had passed safely. The mills shut down for a few days, which increased the river's oxygen concentrations to four parts per million and allowed the fish to continue upstream.
Untreated wastes from pulp and paper mills also affected the commercial fishing industry in the lower Columbia River. For years, commercial fishermen complained about the slime that clogged their nets to OSSA and its counterpart in Washington. The slime made the nets slippery to handle, and the clogging made them less effective. No one knew exactly what caused the slime to form on nets, but many believed that water pollution was somehow to blame. By the 1960s, studies showed that the slime consisted of bacteria, predominantly Sphaerotilus natans, and that its prolific growth was stimulated by high concentrations of complex wood sugars discharged into rivers, along with other pulp and paper mill wastes. Still unanswered, however, was the question of how the bacteria were able to attach to the nets and grow there. Scientists believed that the bacteria grew only on solid substrates such as boulders, submerged vegetation, and pilings found along the bottoms and banks of rivers and estuaries. Robert McHugh, an OSSA biologist, disproved this belief after discovering that bacteria also grew on wood fibers and other organic particles suspended in water. As bacteria grew, they formed filamentous, cottony flocs that drifted with the currents until they were caught by nets. In some instances, a net would be slimed up within an hour after being put in the river. After 1964, when OSSA required pulp and paper mills to remove wood fibers from their wastewaters before discharge, the bacterial slime on fishing nets disappeared. (15)
OTHER WOOD-PRODUCTS INDUSTRIES also polluted Oregon's waters. Glue wastes from plywood and glue-manufacturing plants threatened water quality and fish by depleting the oxygen in rivers and estuaries. The glues were laced with sodium pentachlorophenate to kill glue-eating bacteria, and it killed other bacteria as well, including those used in sewage treatment plants.
Wood-products industries also generated or used immense quantities of wood chips, which often were stored in mountainous heaps near rivers and other waterways. Heavy, persistent rainfall leached wood saps and sugars from the piles of chips. The leached materials either seeped into the ground, contaminating local groundwaters, or flowed into rivers, lakes, or estuaries. Strong winds frequently blew wood chips and other wood debris into nearby surface waters, where the wood decomposed and released harmful chemical extracts into the water. At Scappoose Slough on the Columbia River, wood chips and fiberboard wastes from a fiberboard plant were routinely dumped into the slough. During my routine inspections of the site, I noticed that the slough was gradually filling with waste materials, and that nearly twelve feet of these materials had accumulated. Rather than dredge the slough to remove the wastes, which would have been costly and ecologically disruptive, OSSA decided to leave the materials in place to provide shallow-water habitat for juvenile salmon.
Sawmills and other log-processing factories often dug large, shallow ponds at their facilities to store logs. These log ponds, filled with black, stagnant, highly polluted water, were periodically drained into nearby rivers. The poisonous plumes of log-pond water would kill fish and other aquatic life for miles downstream. The ponds also became notorious for breeding great swarms of mosquitoes. My colleague Robert McHugh sought to control mosquito infestations in log ponds by introducing the mosquito-eating fish Gambusia affinis. McHugh obtained the fish from university researchers in Utah and delivered them to Oregon, where they were propagated and then stocked in log ponds throughout the state. During his thirty-year career, McHugh regularly liberated the small fish into ponds, lakes, and slow- moving streams. I cannot recall a time when he did not have a fish tank filled with Gambusia, in the back of his truck, ready for distribution. (16)
AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD-processing industries also contributed to Oregon's water-quality problems. Run-off from agricultural lands and livestock feedlots, wastewater discharges from food canneries and other food-processing plants, and offal wastes from factories that dissected, processed, and packaged cattle, fish, fowl, and other animals polluted waters. Precipitation run-off from agricultural lands transported soils, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and other materials into rivers, lakes, and estuaries. The soils muddied the water, and the various chemicals used to ensure high crop yields killed fish and other aquatic organisms. Animal wastes from feedlots and pastures were washed into rivers and other waterways during rainstorms or snowmelt run-off. These wastes were highly biodegradable, but their bacterial decomposition exhausted oxygen supplies in the water. I remember seeing, for example, a mountainous heap of cow manure in eastern Oregon that was liquefied during a torrential rainstorm, causing it to flow overland for several miles. The flow finally subsided, but not before contaminating surface and groundwaters, including several wells, in an area of roughly four square miles.
Herbicides, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals also contributed to the problem. One of the worst chemicals was a popular weed-control herbicide called Pre-Merge, which was highly toxic to fish. Pre-Merge was regularly applied to thousands of acres of string beans in the Willamette Valley. Beans were irrigated and some of the irrigation water, contaminated with Pre-Merge, would flow into the river or other water bodies. Some farmers would fill their spray equipment with water from the nearest river or stream, then rinse the equipment in the same river or stream after the crops had been sprayed, flushing Pre-Merge directly into the water. This practice was so widespread that OSSA asked the Oregon State College Agricultural Extension Service to circulate an emergency bulletin to the agricultural community explaining how the practice endangered fish and other aquatic life and requesting that it be stopped. To their credit, farmers promptly com-plied with the request, showing that education about the ecological hazards of chemicals could be more effective than a heavy-handed approach of issuing fines and other penalties.
Pollution from canneries and other food-processing plants was difficult to assess for several reasons. First, these plants produced enormous quantities of wastes. A potato-processing plant in eastern Oregon, for example, produced thirty-five tons of waste per day, all of which was dumped into the river. A typical corn cannery produced roughly the same amount of waste daily. Second, these wastes contained more biodegradable organic solids than human sewage, which made them even more capable than sewage of depleting oxygen supplies in rivers and other waterways. Finally, because food crops were harvested mostly in late summer and fall, the processing factories discharged their wastes into rivers when water flows were at their lowest for the year. Low flows meant less water to dilute wastewaters to ecologically safe levels. By the late 1960s, the industry was required to comply with OSSA-issued waste-discharge permits, which prohibited food-processors from discharging untreated wastes directly into rivers and other bodies of water. Instead, the wastes were sent to municipal sewage treatment plants, where the organic solids were recycled into fertilizer for food crops or converted to food for live-stock.
Sometimes our biggest problem was simply determining where certain wastes were being discharged. This was particularly true in the dark places under docks and other structures along the Willamette River water-front. On the east side of the river, not far from the Burnside Bridge, I once found a submerged sewer outlet belching enormous amounts of white chicken feathers, entrails, heads, and feet. These wastes had obviously come from a chicken-processing plant, but where was it? We eventually discovered that live chickens were being delivered to a processing plant located several blocks from the river. Deliveries were typically made at night, when the chickens were quietest, and then processed and packaged the next day.
PORTLAND HARBOR WAS ONE of the most polluted stretches of the river. When the city held its annual Rose Festival in June, U.S. Navy ships traditionally sailed into the harbor with great fanfare and tied up along the harbor seawall. During the s, when harbor waters appeared to be the greasiest ever, the ships would arrive spotlessly clean in accordance with Navy regulations. After a few days in the harbor, however, every ship and small boat accumulated a two-foot-wide belt of heavy tar, grease, and oil at waterline. When the Navy's visit ended, the mighty ships would steam downriver with sailors hanging over the sides in boatswain chairs, each grasping a bucket of solvent and a stiff brush to remove the rings of Oregon tar and grease. Soon after the ships had departed, OSSA would receive a phone call from the U.S. Coast Guard's officer of the day in Portland, complaining that the agency was not aggressive enough in enforcing oil spill laws and regulations.
Construction of highways, bridges, airports, dams, buildings, sewage treatment plants, and parking lots throughout Oregon required immense quantities of sand and gravel, much of which was dredged from the bottoms of rivers. River bottoms were also dredged to deepen shipping channels and ship-berthing docks. Dredging produced great plumes of muddy water that extended for miles downstream, damaging or destroying river aesthetics and ecology, particularly habitat that was vital to resident and migratory fish populations. It could also liberate highly toxic chemicals and gases that had been trapped for ages in river sediments. Disposal of dredged materials, or spoils, covered and filled wetlands and other riparian areas vital to fish and wildlife. Faced with more pressing water-quality issues, OSSA was slow to regulate sand and gravel operations. Eventually, however, strict turbidity standards were developed and enforced to maintain reasonably clear waters downstream of dredging sites. Regulations created for mixing zones, in which dredgers could continue their work but beyond which turbidity-standards had to be observed.
Between 1964 and 1967, as authorized under the Federal River and Harbor Act of 1962, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged and diked the Portland Harbor downstream of the Broadway Bridge. This project deepened the river channel to forty feet and increased its width by 600 to 900 feet to accommodate passage of increasingly larger ships. The dredged materials, pumped from the river through a pipeline, were used to fill a thirty-acre site known as Mock's Bottom. Dredge spoils were also pumped into other low-lying areas along the river, including the last remaining wetlands behind the upper end of Swan Island, Doane Lake, and the entire eleven acres of a swampy area located on both ends of the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad Bridge.
Dredging in the river near Doane Lake dug into a massive deposit of rotting wood wastes, layers of thick oil, and tons of heavy wire used years earlier to bind log rafts together. When this deposit was dredged, toxic chemicals and gases, including poisonous hydrogen sulfide and flammable methane, were released into the river. Muddy, chemically toxic waters also flowed back into the river from sediment disposal sites. The dredging of the Portland Harbor bottom, coupled with the muddy return flows from disposal sites, contaminated the river far downstream and kept it highly turbid for nearly two years. Spring Chinook salmon fishermen, whose fishing success depended on clear waters, bombarded OSSA with angry invectives about the river's turbid condition. At times, when turbidity had reduced the river's water clarity to near-zero, dredging was temporarily halted to allow salmon to migrate upstream. To halt dredging operations on a moment's notice, and thus provide fish protection as quickly as possible, required a prearranged agreement among all parties involved, including OSSA, the Corps of Engineers, and state and federal fish agencies.
IN THE MID- TO LATE 1960S, OSSA was besieged with complaints from fishers claiming that the Chi-nook they caught in the Willamette had a strong iodine flavor, making them inedible. We suspected that the flavor was linked to one of the many chemicals discharged everyday into the Willamette River. We found that all of the tainted fish had been caught downstream of a discharge pipe used by the Chipman Chemical Company, which manufactured weed killers (herbicides). The company--located on the west bank of the Willamette near the old Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad bridge--had greatly increased its production to accommodate the U.S. military, which was then applying millions of gallons of herbicides in Vietnam to defoliate the jungle. The increase in production resulted in a corresponding increase in the company's waste discharges.
We believed the company's waste discharges had become high enough to induce an iodine taste in fish flesh. Fish swimming upriver through the wastewater plume probably absorbed a chemical through their gills and skin, but we were not able to detect any known chemical in the waste that might have caused the iodine flavor. When live hatchery fish were exposed to the company's waste in test tanks, however, they acquired the iodine flavor. Told that the continued production of herbicides for the Vietnam War was a matter of national security, OSSA allowed the Chipman Chemical Company to continue operations but ordered them to work toward ameliorating the water pollution. The company eventually went out of business, leaving behind factory grounds that have since been designated as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
BY THE LATE 1960S, STUDIES and enforcement actions that OSSA had initiated in the early 1950s were showing results, including restored fisheries, aesthetics, recreational potential, and other beneficial uses of the Willamette River. According to George Gleeson, "1968 was the year of return of the river to a long anticipated condition of acceptable water quality." (17) Even in the Portland Harbor, which received a lot of media attention for its poor water quality, fish were surviving. In the early 1960s, OSSA field personnel and biologists from the Oregon Game Commission set several fish traps and fyke nets in the Willamette opposite Mock's Bottom. In one overnight period, these devices caught over seven hundred fish, including black and white crappies, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, warmouth bass, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, yellow perch, troutperch, young lampreys, Chinook salmon, catfish, sturgeon, chubs, northern pike minnow, goldfish, carp, whitefish, coarse scaled suckers, shad, cutthroat trout, fine scaled suckers, steelhead, and green sunfish.
In 1969, in response to an increasing emphasis on environmental protection, the Oregon State Legislature created the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The legislation required that OSSA be phased out and that its duties and responsibilities be taken over by the new agency. The OSSA Commission was also disbanded, and it was replaced by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor and whose duties are to oversee DEQ and adopt administrative rules and policies for the agency. (18) The name change, from OSSA
to DEQ, signified a much broader and more aggressive approach to solving environmental problems in Oregon. OSSA, functioning as an arm of the Oregon State Board of Health, had focused its attention largely on water-quality problems affecting public health. DEQ, on the other hand, confronted a wide range of environmental issues, including air and water pollution, management of solid wastes, and land-use policies. This comprehensive course of action was reflected in DEQ's 1974-1975 budget. At $39 million, it was nearly forty times greater than the amount budgeted for OSSA in the 1965-1967 biennium. (19) By 1971, approximately two hundred scientists, engineers, chemists, bacteriologists, administrative personnel, and political appointees were working for DEQ. By 2005, the number of DEQ employees had risen to nearly a thousand.
After OSSA was disbanded, I was reassigned to DEQ as an aquatic biologist along with a half-dozen other biologists, including Edison Quan, Robert McHugh, Charles Gray, David Dunnette, and Douglas Larson. On December 1, 1988, at the age of sixty-two, I closed the book on my career and retired from DEQ with the title of Water Quality Pollution Analyst. By then, the agency was employing hundreds of people, most of whom worked at computers generating letters, public notices, questionnaires, interoffice memos, statistics, reports, replies to public complaints, and computerized mathematical models and virtual simulations that allowed them to visit and assess pollution sites without ever leaving the office.
Today, equipped with advanced analytical and computer technology, DEQ staff continue to work in an environment where many water-pollution problems are seemingly intractable because of their complexity or latent nature. DEQ resembles OSSA only insofar as funding, which is still inadequate to support the agency's mission. If Oregon's rivers, lakes and estuaries are any indication, however, the state is certainly a greener, cleaner place to live than it was fifty years ago.
(1.) K.H. Spies, "The Restoration of Water Quality in the Willamette River of Oregon," in-house report, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, July 1974, 3; Brent Walth, Fire at Eden's Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1994), 138.
(2.) J.E. Britton, "A History of Water Pollution Control in the Willamette Basin, Oregon," Working Paper No. 56, Division of Water Supply and Pollution Control, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Region 9, July 1965, 12.
(3.) Walth, Fire at Eden's Gate, 138-9; G.W. Gleeson, The Return of a River: The Willamette River, Oregon (Corvallis: Water Resources Research Institute, Oregon State University, 1972), 22, 49. For a more detailed history of efforts to clean up the Willamette, see William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).
(4.) Gleeson, Return of a River, 49; Walth, Fire at Eden's Gate, 183.
(5.) R.E. Dimick and F. Merryfield, The Fishes of the Willamette River System in Relation to Pollution (Corvallis: Engineering Experiment Station, Oregon State Agricultural College, 1945).
(6.) H.S. Rogers, et. al., A Sanitary Survey of the Willamette River (Corvallis: Engineering Experiment Station, Oregon State Agricultural College, 1930); G.W. Gleeson, A Sanitary Survey of the Willamette River from the Sellwood Bridge to the Columbia River (Corvallis: Engineering Experiment Station, Oregon State Agricultural College, 1936).
(7.) F. Merryfield and W.G. Wilmot, 1945 Progress Report on Pollution of Oregon Streams (Corvallis: Engineering Experiment Station, Oregon State Agricultural College, 1945); J.E. Britton, A History of Water Pollution Control in the Willamette Basin, Oregon (Portland, Ore.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1965), 18.
(8.) Gleeson, Return of a River, 78-79; Spies, Restoration of Water Quality, 8; W.D. Honey Jr., The Willamette River Greenway: Cultural and Environmental Interplay (Corvallis: Water Resources Research Institute, Oregon State University, 1975), 26-27.
(9.) Gleeson, Return of a River, 59.
(10.) W.F. Willingham, Army Engineers and the Development of Oregon: A History of the Portland District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Portland, Ore.: U.S. Army Engineer District, 1983), 128-48.
(11.) Gleeson, Return of a River, 61-62.
(12.) Britton, History of Water Pollution Control, 42; Spies, Restoration of Water Quality, 7.
(13.) Britton, History of Water Pollution Control, 25-30, 40-43.
(14.) Ibid., 32, 44-51; Gleeson, Return of a River, 67-69.
(15.) Britton, History of Water Pollution Control, 44; R.A. McHugh, "Slime Growths," Oregon Health Bulletin 43:10 (October 1965), 2-10.
(16.) R.A. McHugh, L.S. Miller, and T.E. Olsen, The Ecology and Naturalistic Control of Log Pond Mosquitoes in the Pacific Northwest (Portland: Oregon State Board of Health, Division of Sanitation and Engineering, n.d.).
(17.) Gleeson, Return of a River, 75.
(18.) G.R. Polvi, Water Quality in the Lower Willamette (Corvallis: Water Resources Research Institute, Oregon State University, 1971), 125-8; Gleeson, Return of a River, 62-67; J.O. Shearman, Reservoir-System Model for the Willamette River Basin, Oregon (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, Geological Survey, 1976); E.H. Scott et al., Restoring the Willamette River: Costs and Impacts of Water Quality Control (Corvallis: Water Resources Research Institute, Oregon State University, 1976); D.A. Rickert and W.G. Hines, "River Quality Assessment: Implications of a Prototype Project," Science 200 (1978): 1113-18; Willingham, Army Engineers, 166-78; Walth, Fire at Eden's Gate, 160. See also Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict.
(19.) Walth, Fire at Eden's Gate, 324.
Glen D. Carter with an introduction by Douglas W. Larson…
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Publication information: Article title: Pioneering Water Pollution Control in Oregon. Contributors: Carter, Glen D. - Author. Journal title: Oregon Historical Quarterly. Volume: 107. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2006. Page number: 254. © 2009 Oregon Historical Society. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.