By Midge Pierce

 

A last ditch campaign to save Portland’s iconic Mt. Tabor reservoirs is emerging from outer SE citizens who lobbied successfully against fluoridation.

At a recent Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association meeting, a handful of diehard water watchdogs from neighborhoods as far away as Park Rose, called for a citywide forum on the public health implications of replacing open air reservoirs with closed repositories like the one nearing completion on Powell Butte.

The group believes that preserving the open air reservoirs will help ensure the purity of Portland’s Bull Run drinking water.

“The health impact of closing the reservoirs is not just a Mt. Tabor issue,” said RoseMarie Opp, a 12-year chair of the Mill Park NA who stepped down to focus full time on water issues. Recently, she has been distributing fliers and speaking out at neighborhood events about the hazards of “putting our water in dark tanks”.

Opp is critical of the water bureau’s insistence that the scope of a Mt. Tabor reservoir task force be limited to construction needed to take drinking water pipes offline.

“The city has gained a lot of ground making this a Mt. Tabor issue only. The City only wants to talk about what to put on the reservoir sites. Why is the city intentionally keeping the value of open reservoirs to public health off the table?”

The group that once operated as Citizens for Portland’s Water, seeks a public water bureau hearing to address the potential risks of bacteria, cancer-causing heavy metals, and what biologist Scott Fernandez has termed “daughter” decay by-products trapped in closed, underground reservoirs.

In addition, the City’s occasional use of well-water when reservoir supplies run low carry the additional hazard of radon from the wells seeping into our skin through showers and onto our clothes through washing machines – as well as into our internal organs through drinking, according to Fernandez.

Radon in water is not regulated, he added. (See October SE Examiner, “Protecting Functional Icons” for more of Fernandez account of drinking water hazards and the city’s denial that there are health risks in containment.)

In a letter to The Southeast Examiner, Opp claims the City has not been truthful about the EPA’s directive for closure. “How can they tell us they have to do this now because of the EPA LT2 rule (to cover or treat reservoirs) when that rule is being reviewed?”  A new EPA ruling may be issued as early as next year.

Distrust of the water bureau has led Opp and others to suspect that the City used the LT2 ruling as an excuse for costly construction projects like the Powell Butte Reservoir when other options might have been less impactful.

“When I compare how New York City delayed closing its reservoirs with what Portland hasn’t done, I come to the conclusion that the water board is not working for us. It’s working against us.”

Opp is hardly the first to cry foul over water bureau policies. For a decade, Friends of the Reservoirs’ Floy Jones has pushed past Portland polite with online postings that cite “cozy” relationships and conflicts of interest between water bureau officials and contractors for underground water tanks.

An excerpt from several years ago charges,  “The City was involved in crafting the EPA LT2 rule back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Portland Water Bureau sent their consultant, Joe Glicker of MWH Global, to Washington D.C. to help craft the EPA LT2 rule. So in fact, the City played a significant role in the poorly-crafted mandate which is currently under revision.” (For more information, see  www.friendsofreservoirs.org.)

“Portland is blessed with the best drinking water system in the world,” Jones wrote several years ago. “Let’s keep it that way by preserving the functionality of Portland’s open reservoirs.”

She has consistently been outspoken about the mayor’s failure to aggressively push state officials to seek a delay. Now, after a recent meeting of the mayor’s Utility Oversight Blue Ribbon Commission in which the committee declined to address the reservoirs and public health concerns, a battle-weary Jones despaired that time is running out.  “The EPA ruling will likely come too late, if it comes at all.”

When the mayor’s handpicked commission was asked if it would address public health concerns about the closures, Chair Dwight Holton said the reservoir issues were not within its mission. The rate-setting process is the commission’s primary focus despite a stated goal that includes improving “transparency in the development, review and adoption of policy, systems plans and Capital Improvement Plans” .

That didn’t stop a water bureau spokesperson from inviting the public to upcoming hearings sponsored by the Parks Bureau. These hearings would be limited to what happens to the reservoirs once they are decommissioned.

The Water Bureau filed for a land-use permit at the end of September for the Mt. Tabor Reservoir disconnect project. Construction isn’t planned to begin until sometime in the spring of 2015. There will be a public comment period and a hearing before the permit is granted or denied. 

People can read the submittal and learn about the land-use review process at www.portlandoregon.gov/water/65903.