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Let The Public See Who’s Responsible For River Discharge

Oregonian Opinion Letter

April 6, 2013

By Travis Williams

Every day, millions of gallons of treated waste are pumped into our rivers and other waterways in Oregon from municipal treatment plants, industrial facilities and other sources. These discharges are allowed with permits issued under the federal Clean Water Act, and most often people meet the standards for cleanliness set within those permits. Most of these pipes are underwater, discreetly discharging treated waste unseen, but sometimes problems occur and visible pollution results along our rivers.

This was the case for me and many others last summer on the upper Willamette. While paddling a canoe with an Oregon Parks and Recreation ranger, we encountered a massive plume of wastewater that was darkening easily a third of the river’s width. This plume extended downstream about a half-mile. It smelled horrid and turned the Willamette’s normal light blue-green hue to nearly black.

Because I’ve worked on this river for 13 years, I knew that there was a nearby mill and that it was likely something was amiss with its discharge to the Willamette. As it turned out, I was correct. Yet if I hadn’t known about this discharge ahead of time, I would not have been able to see from the river that there was a permitted discharge; there was no contact information or company name posted anywhere nearby.

I found out that for weeks, river users had been trying to figure out what that plume was. Those paddling and fishing the river saw and smelled the plume, but there was no indication of where it was coming from or why it was occurring. There are many pipes in Oregon waters, most with no indication of where they are. In essence they remain hidden until something goes wrong. This should change. When problems occur, river users should have a direct, inexpensive and easy way to gain information from the river — in the form of a basic sign.

It makes sense to have a simple sign placed along the riverbank to indicate that there is a discharge point under the Clean Water Act. The sign should include the permit holder’s name and phone number, as well as contact information for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. At times the general public is the first to spot trouble in Oregon’s waterways, and it makes sense for river users to be able to get in touch with the permit holder.

Two states that are very different politically, New York and Tennessee, both require signs at such discharge points. The Oregon Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee recently considered a bill to require signage at such discharge points, but the opposition from both cities and industry was fierce. They seem to fear those who fish, boat and paddle knowing about these discharge points, and providing basic contact information.

It’s time to remedy this gap of knowledge about our public waters. Signage is effective, inexpensive and direct. The public right to know on our waterways is the right way to go.

Travis Williams is riverkeeper and executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. He is author of the “Willamette River Field Guide.”

Source:  http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/04/let_the_public_see_whos_respon.html

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