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Environment | Water

Willamette Pollution Could Prompt Legal Action

HALSEY, Ore. — Willamette Riverkeeper is threatening to sue two pulp mills in the Willamette Valley for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act.

Three times in the past three weeks paddlers have found a large pool of brown water in the Willamette River. It’s always at the same spot near Halsey south of Corvallis.

“There’s a smell that smells of decay of some sort throughout the entire area,” said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper.

OPB’s Vince Patton was paddling with Williams for a separate Oregon Field Guide story when they abruptly crossed from clear green water to cloudy brown.

“This is actually one of the strangest things I’ve seen on the Willamette River. It simply isn’t right,” Williams said during the canoe trip.

(video: underwater view)

A fish eye’s look at the Willamette’s transition from clear green to cloudy brown. Credit: Vince Patton

Williams has been back to the spot twice more. Each time he has found the foul-smelling brown pool covers about a third of the river and stretches downstream about three quarters of a mile.

The source is two pulp mills, which share a discharge pipe. Cascade Pacific Pulp and the smaller Georgia-Pacific operation have permits to treat their waste and release it into a “mixing zone.” There the river’s highest flows will dilute it and carry it away.

They are discharging a combined 17-hundred pounds of suspended solids every day.

But the river has washed in a new gravel bar which blocks the current. The pollution is not being mixed as planned.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality confirms this is the second summer in a row those two pulp mills have had troubles with the mixing zone.

“It’s not mixing as designed when the river is fully flowing across their outfall,” said Steve Schnurbusch, DEQ’s acting water quality manager.

Mixing zones – using rivers to dilute effluent – are a standard approach to dispersing pollution.

“The faster you can get an effluent mixing in the stream, you know, whatever pollutants are left after treatment get diluted rapidly. There would be less impact on aquatic life and people recreating in the stream,” he said.

Last year the mills got a temporary permit to dig trenches in the new gravel bar to get more flow of the river across the discharge pipe.

A Cascade Pacific Pulp manager says the company is working with federal agencies for permits to more permanently change the river channel to insure high flows.

Willamette Riverkeeper’s Williams objects. He said the pollution permits are based on a working mixing zone. His group intends to sue both mills for violating the Clean Water Act.

“It seems like a system that’s very flawed,” he said. “The expectation shouldn’t be every time that we go in and modify the river just because someone needs to discharge treated waste in to the river.”

A Georgia Pacific spokesman said its plant is small and doubts any of its discharge would carry any significant color.

Officials at both mills said they are complying with the law.

The Oregon DEQ’s Schnurbusch has not been to the site to investigate but doubts there is any violation of the law.

“We have looked into this ourselves and we do not believe they are violating their permit so we do not plan to take enforcement action at this time,” he said.

Travis Williams disagreed.

“I think DEQ has it wrong. There is a mixing zone that is allowed,” he said. “This mixing zone is far larger in our estimation and our measurement than what is allowed in the permit.”

Willamette Riverkeeper has given the companies 60 days to respond before it files its lawsuit, Williams said.

(This was first reported for OPB News.)