Thursday, November 12, 2009

Portland's ca. 2009 sewer shortcomings echo Portland's ca. 1958-1961 sewer shortcomings

This Oregonian article from November 11, 2009, suggests that Portland's expenditures on infrastructure to keep sewage from the Willamette River and Columbia Slough may be insufficient to achieve environmental standards. To summarize the main points:

1) Portland's existing sewage infrastructure is insufficient to achieve environmental standards;

2) A government agency is pushing Portland to expend more money on the city's sewage infrastructure and will hold a hearing on the topic in a couple of weeks;

3) City officials assert that these stipulations are onerous and threaten to push citizen's sewage disposal costs to exorbitant levels;

4) This city official asks of the government agency pushing for these changes whether the agency will give Portland credit for the work they've already done, "or are you just going to pick up a different bat to hit us with?"

Hmmmm . . . let us enter the time machine now, and go back to the late 1950s (as documented in my MA thesis, "Working for the 'Working River': Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962," Portland State University, 2009) . . .

[Image top right: Francis Storr, 2007, Creative Commons]


In a comprehensive survey of river conditions in 1957, the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) found the river “still polluted to such an extent that it is not safe for certain recreational uses and occasionally in certain sections it is unsuitable for propagation or maintenance of fish life.”[1] The authority’s research led it to two important conclusions: primary municipal waste treatment was no longer sufficient in the Willamette Valley; and the city of Portland still lagged behind other municipalities because it had yet to connect thirty-five raw sewage outfalls from Linnton, Tryon Creek, and other outlying neighborhoods to the city’s primary treatment plant. In reaction, the OSSA initiated another effort to compel compliance with Oregon’s water pollution laws at its January 1958 meeting.[2]

In response to pressure from the OSSA and citizen activists—including David Charlton and other members of the Izaak Walton League—Portland’s City Council prepared a measure for the November 1958 ballot. This measure bundled $5 million in capital improvements for Portland’s sewer system with other projects into a $39,555,000 package. The OSSA opposed this measure because it predicted that voters would be loathe to approve such a large amount. It reminded Portland mayor Terry Schrunk that city officials were under legal obligation to keep sewage from the Willamette River; therefore, if voters did not approve the package, the Sanitary Authority would be authorized to take legal action. As authority members feared, voters did not approve the measure. [3]

The Portland City Council offered a seven-point plan in the aftermath of the failed funding measure and in response to the authority’s ultimatum to develop fiscal and construction proposals by January 15, 1959.[4] Commissioner Bowes and other city officials asserted that they were willing to do what they could but only insofar as funds would allow. To correct system deficiencies, council members agreed to place yet another bond issue on the May 1960 ballot.[5] Notwithstanding city officials’ claim of insufficient funds, in early March 1959 the Sanitary Authority rejected the city’s seven-point proposal and filed suit against the City of Portland for failure to comply with pollution abatement orders in a timely manner.[6]

Newspapers sided with the OSSA and other abatement advocates against Portland officials. The Oregonian put it in clear terms: Because the OSSA was advocating for health and welfare, it was “on the side of the angels,” and Portland city leaders were clearly “aligned with the forces of evil.”[7] There had long been elements of morality in the approach of pollution abatement advocates, particularly in some Izaak Walton League members and in Oregon Journal and Oregonian editorials. However, this particular editorial expressed a level of unambiguous moralizing that reflected a growing ethical argument against water pollution within and beyond Oregon.[8]

Responding to the suit against Portland in early March 1959, Mayor Schrunk accused the authority of deliberately impinging upon the policy of home rule and not giving sufficient credit for the tens of millions of dollars the city had already spent. He also warned that the OSSA’s goal of completely eliminating water pollution within Portland city limits would signal an end to all manufacturing concerns and a corresponding loss of jobs.[9] Portland’s chief deputy city attorney said that city officials looked forward to the opportunity to challenge the validity of the state law empowering the OSSA.[10] On November 24, 1959, the authority refused Portland’s request to dismiss its legal action. Authority members did, however, follow the recommendation of Circuit Judge Frank Lonergan to seek mediation and subsequently postponed the scheduled court hearing.[11]

Debate between the OSSA and Portland city officials continued throughout 1960. Authority members received a letter from Commissioner Bowes on December 14 outlining the steps that Portland was then preparing to make to comply with the Sanitary Authority’s order to upgrade and expand its sewer infrastructure. These steps included treating wastes discharged into the Columbia River after primary treatment by installing a chlorine treatment facility no later than summer 1961. The city would also construct a secondary sewage system for the Tryon Creek area. The OSSA found these and other actions satisfactory and dismissed its lawsuit.[12]

[1] Oregon State Sanitary Authority Meeting Minutes [hereafter OSSA Minutes] July 14, 1960, vol. 3, p. 381, Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality, Portland, Oreg.

[2] “Water Clean-Up Order Aimed at Cities, Firms,” Oregonian, Jan. 25, 1958, sec. 1, p. 4. See also OSSA Minutes July 14, 1960, vol. 3, p. 381. For number of sewer outfalls, see “City Maps Pollution Campaign,” Oregonian, Jan. 15, 1959, sec. 1, p. 1.

[3] “River Waste Gets Study”; OSSA Minutes vol. 3, Aug. 8, 1958, p. 252. OSSA Minutes Feb. 6, 1959, vol. 3, pp. 263-279.

[4] OSSA Minutes Oct. 17, 1958, vol. 3, pp. 256-260. See also “City Faces State Demand to Explain Pollution,” Oregonian, Sept. 30, 1958, sec. 1, p. 1; “Pollution Ultimatum Given City,” Oregonian, Oct. 18, 1958, sec. 1, pp. 1, 6.

[5] “City Maps Pollution Campaign.”

[6] OSSA Minutes Feb. 6, 1959, vol. 3, pp. 267-269. See also “City Faces Pollution Court Suit,” Oregonian, Feb. 7, 1959, sec. 1, pp. 1, 6; “State Suit Asks City Stop ‘Filth,’” Oregonian, March 3, 1959, sec. 1, p. 1.

[7] “We Want Clean River,” Oregonian, Feb. 20, 1959, p. 30.

[8] For a detailed analysis of the explicit and implicit morality and religiosity in post-war environmentalism, see Thomas R. Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest (Seattle, Wash., University of Washington Press, 2004). For an interpretation of changes in Americans’ conception of the environment in the post-war era based on the experiences of suburban residents, see Adam W. Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[9] “Mayor Snaps at Oregon Air, Sanitary Units,” Oregonian, March 4, 1959, sec. 1, p. 1. The city was also being pressed by the State Air Pollution Authority.

[10] “Pollution Law to be Tested by City,” Oregonian, Aug. 7, 1959, sec. 1, p. 27.

[11] “Sanitary Authority Delays River Pollution Hearing,” Oregonian, Nov. 15, 1959, p. 15; see also OSSA Minutes Nov. 24, 1959, vol. 3, pp. 315-316.

[12] OSSA Minutes Dec. 15, 1960, vol. 4, pp. 33-35.



  1. Here's a link to a Willamette Week article from June 25, 2008, about swimming in the Willamette. Anecdotal data, mostly.

    One commenter writes: "Actually, the city's been doing a lot to clean up the river, for years. It's far cleaner than it used to be."

  2. A related link from the Mercury on the topic of swimming in the Willamette in Portland.