PWB rushes to build controversial filtration plant

Op-Ed By Floy Jones

Portland Water Bureau is rushing an August 2 City Council vote to make monumental, onerous, and costly changes to our pristine Bull Run watershed and pure drinking water, when clearly there is no need to rush.

Twenty-five years ago the costly state-of-the-art filtration plant in Milwaukee Wisconsin failed to protect against the infectious species of Cryptosporidium and other contaminants present in their polluted watershed.

Infectious species of Cryptosporidium have never been detected in Bull Run water. There has never been any disease in the community from Portland’s Bull Run water in 125 years.

Yet, Portland Water Bureau (PWB) is moving forward with plans to build either (or both) a UV Radiation facility in the watershed with mercury bulbs that are known to break ($105 million estimate), or worse yet a chemical-adding filtration plant ($350-$500 million) in Gresham.

They waited to bring this forward until after securing a 6.7% water rate increase in May (effective in July), an increase that piles on top of a decade of massive increases. These plans create new public health and watershed risks, threatening the purity of our water and watershed protections, while providing no measurable public health benefit.

Thousands of hours of comprehensive research over 16 years including review of volumes of Water Bureau and EPA files, communication with other utilities, public health officials, and the EPA, leads Friends of the Reservoirs to conclude that “if money were no object” we would not support adding risky chemicals like acrylamide, alum or polymers to our water.

Nor would we support the CH2MHill designed ($16 million spent to date) UV Radiation facility that involves watershed construction of multiple buildings, logging, and the introduction of mercury to our water system.

These plants will increase Portland’s carbon footprint, and negatively impact the taste and composition of Portland’s water, further increasing water bills. Portland’s minimally treated Bull Run water system has always been the pride of Portland, and the envy of the world. There is no evidence-based reason to change that.

We are told that Oregon Health Authority bureaucrats will allow Portland up to 15 years to design and build a filtration plant, but won’t allow any time beyond December to engage the public in decision making and to conduct a reliable, high level of confidence cost and probability analysis.

EPA’s sampling method does not distinguish between the majority of Cryptosporidium species (genotypes) that are not infectious (harmless) to humans and the few that are.

The two species that are responsible for the significant public health outbreaks are those from humans (c. hominus), think daycare centers and public swimming pools (Sellwood), and c. parvum (cows, Baker City).

Improved sampling methods are available, and one was utilized by the American Water Work Association Research Foundation in a scientific study (AwwaRF #3021) that concluded that Portland and all participating utilities already meets the goal of the rule which is to reduce the level of disease in the community.

Comprehensive disease surveillance data confirmed disease levels in the region were lower than normal during the January to March period of the PWB’s harmless “detects”.

Regardless, Commissioner Fish told his new utility board to ignore scientific facts pressing them to not recommend a delay for better decision-making and public process but “make their best guess” as to what treatment plant(s) ratepayers should finance.

Trouble for Portland’s water system started when Water Bureau manager Rosemary Menard served on EPA’s LT2 Federal Advisory Committee (FACA). She signed an Agreement in Principle though not authorized to do so, without Council approval or public knowledge.

Menard brought with her to the FACA table a revolving-door consultant, Joe Glicker, whose associated global corporations, MWH Global and CH2Mhill have been the beneficiaries of multiple contracts related to treatment plants and buried tanks, including designing the $170 million underground tank at Powell Butte that had a massive number of cracks at completion then leaking enough to fill an Olympic-sized pool every day.

PWB has a number of back up water supplies to address emergencies. They’ve invested huge sums to clean up the Columbia South Shore Well Field for use; they’ve built top-secret interties with other utilities, and took over Powell Valley wells in 2005.

How many emergency backups must ratepayers finance? In 2012 Water Bureau dredging in the watershed was the cause of high turbidity. Ratepayers paid for decommissioning logging roads to reduce turbidity.

Last year despite storm after storm, turbidity was very low. Fire protections are in place, and the risk considered low, Massive fires often shut down filtration plants. Contrary to their 15-year old modeling of climate change, water demand is down since 1988.

New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle provide safe, unfiltered, great tasting water to many tens of millions. Yes, 90% of large water systems do have filtration plants. Why? Because their watersheds are polluted by human activity.

PWB and their consultants co-authored a paper presented at an industry conference in Paris detailing the risks of mercury bulbs breaking in the Bull Run watershed and drinking water, Balancing Risk versus Benefit…Bull Run disinfection facility.

Shouldn’t the public have opportunity to read it and consider the implications? PWB asked CH2Mhill to prepare information on the potential public health impacts from the chemicals that would be added to our drinking water if a filtration plant is built. Shouldn’t the public have opportunity to assess these health impacts with the entire medical community before any decision?

The options the Water Bureau has put forward are indeed onerous, but they are not the only compliance options.

New York City secured a 20-year deferral of one part of this regulation until 2034 after detecting Cryptosporidium in their Hillview reservoir.

Boston went to court and won when EPA tried to force them to build a filtration plant.

During the mayoral campaign, Mayor Wheeler said that the city should have fought harder for Portland’s open reservoirs. While we don’t support the gutting of the EPA by the Trump administration, Portland must resist this overreaching, flawed regulation.

Protection of our pure Bull Run water and beloved watershed and 125 years of history demands it.

PWB rushes to build controversial filtration plant

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