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The Big Pipe

Pete Springer/OPB

The city of Portland is tooting its own horn this week, celebrating the successful completion of the biggest public works project in its history. The CSO, or Combined Sewage Overflows project, is more commonly referred to as the Big Pipe project. In order to prevent sewage flowing into the Willamette River, engineers used a mammoth drill underneath the city and installed two huge pipes on either side of the river. Over the years, OPB reporters, photographers and TV producers have checked in on the enormous project.

The city has a reason to be proud: the $1.4 billion project came in on time and under budget. It will all but eliminate the combined overflows of sewage and storm water into the Willamette River. However, sewage seeped into the river as recently as this week — even though the west side pipe has been online for years and the bigger pipe on the east side has been in operation since September. Commissioner Dan Saltzman says the city is still permitted four overflows per winter, which he points out is a vast improvement over the overflows that happened almost every time it rained. 

But some critics would like to see greater protection for the river. Nina Bell directs the environmental organization that filed the lawsuit that first spurred the city to begin the project 20 years ago. She acknowledges that the results from the Big Pipe project are dramatic, but she says she is still concerned about the toxic pollutants that are in storm water and the compromises that are necessary to treat both sewage and storm water together. 

Do you live, work or play near the Willamette River? What questions do you have about the Big Pipe project or protecting the river from contaminants?


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