It appears the city of Portland will not have to sink tens of millions of dollars into a new water treatment plant in the Bull Run watershed. Oregon health officials announced Tuesday the city's request for a variance from federal drinking water rules.
After years of consulting with federal authorities, and more than a year and a half of testing Bull Run water, Portland officials got the answer they were hoping for. The proposed approval came from Gail Shibley, the environmental public health administrator at the Oregon Health Authority. Her agency has enforcement authority over the federal drinking water rules.
"We reached the decision based on the legal standard in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act that the weight of the present scientific evidence leads us to conclude, with the specific conditions that we’ve included in our proposed order, that the city of Portland’s variance request should be granted," she said.
"This is probably one of the best days I've had working for the last several years," said David Shaff, the administrator of Portland's water bureau. He's spearheaded the effort to avoid building a treatment plant. He says he's been making the same argument for years.
"That the Bull Run watershed and the work that we do in the watershed to preserve it, is of such a nature and quality that we don't need to build an additional treatment plant," he said.
The treatment plant would've cost ratepayers as much as $60 million, according to water bureau estimates.
There are conditions. The variance requires the city to continue testing for the microorganism, cryptosporidium.
The variance does not affect Portland's open reservoirs. Months ago, there was little doubt that the feds were going to require hundreds of millions of dollars in capital improvements to those as well. Shaff says relief may be coming on that front, too – but it's too early to tell. He's waiting to hear back from state officials, who are waiting on the feds.
"What we expect is an answer on our request to get an indefinite suspension on the timeline. What we hope for is some guidance from the EPA and the state, that lets us know how we might achieve some form of alternative compliance," Shaff said.
There's a hearing scheduled for December 14 on the Bull Run variance. The city expects to hear more on the reservoirs "very soon."
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