Saturday, March 19, 2011

"There is almost criminal negligence of city officials to permit this"

“River Looks Bad to Two Parties,” Morning Oregonian, Aug. 5, 1936, p. 3.

In August 1936, the Willamette River through Portland's harbor looked and smelled bad. For decades, Oregonians had come to expect that during the low-flow months of July through October, the lower Willamette River would become a tepid, chunky, and foaming soup thickened with raw human excrement, filamentous cannery wastes, harsh sulfite pulp and paper liquors, and other discharges.

What to do about all of this filth?

Polluting a river is quite easy. Simply route an effluent pipe into the stream, push the refuse over the banks, or allow pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals to drain into the water, and one is well on the way to polluting the river. Abating pollution, however, is difficult.

Abating water pollution requires many complementary and concurrent steps. One must, first, prove that a given pollutant is deleterious to the river's health, and/or the public's health. Along with this, one must prove that the harmful effects come from specific sources. Next, one must uncover or suggest technical, administrative, and procedural solutions. It's easy to critique actions, but does the critic have anything productive to offer in the way of possible solutions?

Solutions cost money, so once it has been determined that pollution exists and that there are possible solutions, one must convince people to pay for abatement options. Payment comes either from private or public sources. In the American system of democracy, neither private nor public sources can be tapped without passing laws. These laws will generally provide for some form of proactive or punitive money generation. Proactive generation includes increasing taxes and fees, authorizing the sale of bonds, securing loans, etc. Punitive generation includes assessing fines for people or companies that do not follow abatement regulations.

What does all this have to do with a guy in a gas mask?

Citizen groups, members of the state's fish and game commissions, and some Portland city officials had been working together since the mid-1920s to develop solutions to remedy extreme pollution in Oregon's Willamette River. These advocates pushed for both a state-wide solution and solutions applicable to Portland and other Willamette Valley cities.

At the state level, abatement advocates sought to concentrate responsibility for water quality in a single state agency. It was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that Oregon legislators delegated to state officials any responsibility for water quality, but they spread this responsibility among at least three separate agencies: the Board of Health was concerned with public health and municipal water supplies, the Fish Commission was tasked with water quality related to commercial fisheries, and the Game Commission oversaw sports fishing concerns. Various agency reorganizations from the 1900s into the 1920s modified these areas of responsibilities somewhat, but oversight remained separated among distinct state agencies.

Advocates attempted in 1927 to pass a state law to provide for a single agency to ensure water quality. Their proposal did not make it out of committee. Portland's mayor and representatives from industry were members of the citizens' group organized to generate a solution to Willamette River pollution. This group -- the Anti-Stream Pollution League -- also included representatives from the state board of health, fish, and game commissions as well as members of the Izaak Walton League, other sporting groups, and women's organizations.

A sub-committee of the League drafted legislation that drew the ire of both of the two primary polluters in the valley. Portland Mayor George Baker complained that forcing his city to build a comprehensive sewer interceptor and treatment system would be too expensive, and it wouldn't be fair for the state to force the city to spend so much money on the project. Pulp and paper industry officials asserted both that effective sulfite waste treatment technology did not yet exist and, even if it did, it wouldn't be fair to ask industry to abate its pollution when the city of Portland was still dumping raw sewage into the river.

The Anti-Stream Pollution League's proposed legislation thus died in January 1927, and with it, for a decade at least, a state-wide solution would not be proposed. (State Senator Byron Carney would sponsor similar legislation ten years later.)

In the meanwhile, however, the city of Portland continued to expel raw sewage: forty-eight separate outfalls emptied into Portland Harbor, and eleven emptied into Columbia Slough.

During 1933 and 1934, the city applied twice to the Federal Emergency Public Works Administration (PWA) for a $6M loan and $2M grant to build a sewer interceptor and activated sludge treatment plant. However, in August 1933 the PWA rejected the first application immediately because the plans were inadequate. The PWA accepted the second application in February 1934 but was not able to allocate funds because the state had already been provided its full allotment.

In combination with these applications for federal funds under New Deal programs, Portland's city leaders put to the vote of city residents a number of measures to fund sewer construction. To support the city's August 1933 PWA application, city commissioners brought a $6 million bond issue to the voters at a July 21, 1933, special election. Reacting to what Commissioner Ormond Bean characterized as “the emergency character of the times, as well as the intense campaign” in support of the measure, voters approved a sewer funding plan by a wide margin, 47,029 to 23,395. This plan was to be "self-liquidating" because it would be based on the sale of interest-bearing bonds.

By July 1934, Portland city commissioners had secured approval of voters to finance sewer construction, but they had failed in two attempts to get New Deal funding. That month, the PWA offered city leaders a $2.24M grant contingent upon sale of $6M in bonds. City leaders, however, could not find buyers.

Potential buyers did not consider Portland's bonds attractive because the plans that the bonds would have supported were still inadequate. These plans had been drafted by an unlicensed engineer, Walter Baer, in early 1933. Though Portland Commissioner Bean and three local consulting engineers had subsequently enhanced the plans, Boston-based bond attorneys still found them to be "very indefinite . . . and so general that they meant practically nothing." Therefore, without a solid basis upon which to base a bond sale, Portland officials could not find buyers and could not collect the PWA's grant money.

In light of these repeated failures, the Portland City Council submitted to voters in November 1934 a charter amendment that would authorize $6M in self-liquidating bonds. If buyers could not be found, the city would support the project out of general tax funds. Residents defeated this idea.

Into early 1936, Portland city officials attempted to find ways to issue the sewer funding bonds legally, in spite of the November 1934 vote. The State Supreme Court halted these attempts, however, in their March 31, 1936, opinion holding the city to the original, incomplete, set of plans submitted in June 1933, the funding of which Portland's voters had approved that August. To resolve legal and financial complications, the city council planned to offer voters in the November 1936 election the opportunity to establish a new pay-as-you-go sewer funding solution.

As part of the process to prepare the November 1936 measure, Commissioner Ormond Bean convened a Sewage Disposal Committee. This committee included former state game commissioner and President of the Oregon Wildlife Federation Edgar F. Averill, Portland attorney David Robinson, former state legislator and prominent businessman William F. Woodward, and sanitary engineer Fred Merryfield, among others. Committee members went on a cruise of Portland Harbor on August 4, 1936, to experience conditions first-hand.

After this cruise, Commissioner Bean commented to the Oregonian reporter that the river "certainly is black. I didn't realize how dirty it is." Edgar Averill replied, "Yes, and it keeps getting worse for the next couple of months." The Oregonian reporter continued:
    Leaving from the foot of Stark Street, the boat nosed upstream on the west bank and passed three partially exposed sewers, all emptying into log booms, between the Morrison and Ross Island bridges.
    William F. Woodward said conditions were "inexcusable" in places on the east side, but mostly because of debris along the banks.
    "There is almost criminal negligence of city officials to permit this," he said.
    The pollution situation would be "largely remedied" if the sewers emptied below the water level and into the main current of the river, he said, adding he saw no condition of the river which would be a "menace."
    "His distinction of a 'menace' is different from that of many others," remarked Commissioner Bean.
Bean's committee continued to work diligently on the issue, and they were able to prepare a measure for the November 1936 election. Portland voters, however, did not approve of this measure, either, but that's part of other chapters of this tale.

Sources Cited:

James V. Hillegas, "Working for the 'Working River': Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962," (MA thesis, Portland State University, 2009).

Ormond R. Bean, “Notes on the Portland Sewage Disposal Project, May 1933-June 26, 1936,” undated typewritten manuscript [ca. June 1936], folder Willamette and Columbia River Pollution 1933-1934, box 2 Early Sewage Disposal System Data Sewage Systems (1922-1961), group Department of Public Works Bureau of Refuse Disposal (8890-02), City of Portland Archives and Records Center, Portland, Oreg.

Board of Review (Abel Wolman, R. H. Corey, Wellington Donaldson, and Carl E. Green), “Report on the Collection and Disposal of Sewage,” Portland, Oreg., Aug. 19, 1939, in folder 8402-01 Sewage Disposal Project-Sewage Collection and Disposal Report 1939, box 1, Public Works Administration-City Engineer's Historical/Subject Records, City of Portland Archives and Records Center, Portland, Oreg.

“River Looks Bad to Two Parties,” Morning Oregonian, Aug. 5, 1936, p. 3.


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