Pioneering Water Pollution Control in Oregon

Article excerpt

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. …