Garden Home neighbors appeal plan for Portland pumping station

Note to readers: This story was amended to reflect that Garden Home neighbors Michael and Jeanette Lilly filed an appeal with the Washington County Land Use and Transportation on behalf of themselves alone.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Garden Home resident Stan Houseman shows a stretch along the Fanno Creek Regional Trail that's been dug up twice in recent years to fix or replace sewer pipes leading from the 12-year-old pumping station on Southwest 86th Avenue.On a sunny Tuesday morning, the number of pedestrians and bicyclists strolling and zipping along the Fanno Creek Regional Trail near Vista Brook Park makes the nearby vehicular streets of Garden Home seem virtually abandoned.

The only glitch along the paradise of paved pathway occurs when neighbors congregate near a city of Portland wastewater pumping station just before a wooden bridge that spans Fanno Creek.

Trail users have more or less gotten used to the hulking brick building constructed in 2000 on Southwest 86th Avenue. It’s what the structure symbolizes that gets folks fired up.

“Look at this, it’s 10 in the morning. This trail is used by people left and right,” observed Stan Houseman, a resident of nearby Cecilia Terrace, of the constant flow of engine-free traffic. “And it’s polluted all the time.”

Houseman is referring to raw sewage that trail users say more than occasionally bubbles out from broken or overwhelmed pipes that converge near the creek and pumping station. He is one of hundreds of Garden Home residents increasingly frustrated by ongoing issues with sewer lines and related infrastructure that the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services maintains.

Going downhill

At least a dozen leaks and overflows have been documented in recent years. The occurrences led to an ongoing arrangement between the Portland bureau and Washington County’s Clean Water Services for the latter to accommodate excess wastewater flows to its Durham treatment facility in Tigard.

If the leaks, overflows, smells and noise from the temporarily decommissioned station weren’t enough, a plan by the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services to build an even larger pumping station near the other one has many residents and trail users at wit’s end.

On Monday, concerned neighbors Michael and Jeanette Lilly filed an appeal to the Washington County Land Use and Transportation Department’s Sept. 12 decision to approve the Portland bureau’s special use application for the pumping station and related expansion of the pressurized pipe system.

After years of construction, repairs and re-repairs, Lilly said he and his unincorporated Washington County neighbors have lost faith in the Portland bureau’s ability to deal competently with the situation.

“They’re not doing enough maintenance,” he said of sewer pipes controlled by the Portland bureau. “The volume of water is much higher than was anticipated, so they say they’ve got to build another (pumping station). We don’t want to do another one.”

Though larger and more imposing than the “two-car garage”-sized facility Lilly said neighbors were promised, the existing station can only process 24 cubic-feet-per-second in wastewater flows. During sustained rainy periods and storm events, however, at least 45 CFSs sometimes flow to the system.

A larger facility near the existing station, which will be re-implemented to augment the new one, is expected to handle the capacity and eliminate the need to divert flows to Clean Water Services’ gravity-fed system, said Stephen Sykes, spokesman for Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services.

“The existing pump station will back up the new pump and be utilized primarily in winter months when flows exceed the capacity,” he said, noting two system leaks in the past 20 months — the most recent on Aug. 12 — prompted the pumping station to be taken offline. “The existing pump station will come back online after we’ve had time to assess the conditions generating these leaks and develop a design to address them.”

Backyard dilemma

Terry Vinocur, who lives on Southwest 84th Avenue, three houses away from the proposed pumping station, is one of many who feel the system — whose pipes were upgraded in 2010 — still leaks entirely too often. If a new station must be built, she’d prefer it to be upstream, closer to the business districts around Scholls Ferry Road, than the proposed site, the former Pinger Estate the city of Portland purchased from its most recent owner.

“They’re destroying an aspect of life for us to a degree no other neighborhood has to contend with,” she said. “Because this station is here, they don’t want to explore any other options. What about other properties?”

After the city’s initial application to Washington County for the site was denied two years ago, Sykes said the Portland bureau assessed five alternatives for a new station, including one near the intersection of Scholls Ferry and Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. However, factors including the convergence and intersection of crucial pipes, topography and the availability of property near the current pumping station rendered other sites far less practical.

“From our perspective, with all the considerations in play, the existing corridor made the most sense,” he said. “This site offers the clearest access to the pressure line, the most effective access for construction activities, access for future maintenance and operations, and the least disruption to existing neighborhood amenities.”

Lilly said he’s unconvinced the city is approaching the problems — including degrading westside pipes and higher volume — in a methodical manner.

“Twelve years ago, we were told it would never have to expand,” he noted. “I don’t think they have (conducted) formal studies on what to do. The method they’ve chosen has a significant impact — taking an industrial building and plopping it right in the middle of a neighborhood.”

Facing possible construction of the second pumping station in 12 years at the Fanno Creek site, Vinocur wonders if the city will require further projects in the future.

“I can imagine someday that this becomes sewage central,” she said.

Wastewater tussle rooted in 1997 consolidation

A 19-year Garden Home resident, Shelly Garg enjoys her morning strolls along the Fanno Creek Regional Trail. That is, when the natural beauty of the trail isn’t compromised by a sewage leak.

“I use the trail a lot, and it’s been shut down a lot,” she said. “From my experience of the trail being closed, I don’t think it’s been a very good system. If they can’t properly engineer a small pumping station, who’s to say they can engineer a larger station?”

She’s referring to a proposed wastewater pumping station the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services plans to build near another station it completed in 2000 on Fanno Creek off Southwest 86th Avenue.

Bureau officials believe a pump station designed to handle at least 45 cubic-feet-per-second of flows will eliminate the need to divert flows during heavy rain and storm events to Washington County’s Clean Water Services’ system, a contingency made possible through an intergovernmental agreement between the two agencies.

Clean Water Services’ flows travel by gravity to the Durham Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility on the Tualatin River. The Portland bureau, however, must pump flows from the rugged terrain of the city’s West Hills neighborhoods about 16 miles to the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant near the Portland International Airport.

To accommodate Portland’s replacement of a key plastic-based line with two steel pipes starting in 2008, Clean Water Services took nearly all the Portland flows from the area, said Mark Jockers, the agency’s public relations manager. Now with the pumping station offline after an Aug. 12 spill, Clean Water Services is again taking on the flow load — about three-fourths of which originates from Portland households with the remainder coming from Washington County sources.

Historical flow

The roots of the pumping station conundrum go back to 1997, when the city decided to replace five smaller westside pump stations in Multnomah County with a larger one in Washington County along Fanno Creek. After numerous leaks and malfunctions, the Portland bureau concluded the station’s 24 cubic-feet-per-second capacity was inadequate and would need to be augmented by a larger facility.

The bureau’s initial application to the Washington County Land Use department was denied, but on Sept. 12 a Washington County hearings officer approved a subsequent application. On Monday, Sept 24, Garden Home neighbors Michael and Jeanette Lilly, filed an appeal of the decision with the Washington County Land Use and Transportation.

If the original decision is upheld, the Portland bureau plans to start construction on the approximately $25 million pumping station in October 2013 and wrap up around June 2015, said Stephen Sykes, spokesman for the Bureau of Environmental Services. The station would be built on the former Pinger Estate off Southwest 84th Avenue, property the city bought from the most recent owner, who Sykes described as a “willing seller.”

“We absolutely did not use eminent domain,” he said.

The city plans to demolish the house on the property to accommodate the pumping station structures.

“One thing we do understand from Washington County is that they will not issue building permits, demolition or grading permits until the Land Use Board of Appeals’ final decision is issued,” Sykes said.

Cross purposes

Mark Jockers, spokesman for Clean Water Services, said the inter-jurisdictional/geographical nature of the wastewater system and the affected parties create a complex, tangled socio-political web.

“It’s a city of Portland piece of infrastructure in Washington County,” he observed. “When (system) failures occur, residents want to go to elected officials and talk about it. We say it’s not our infrastructure and we have no control over it. That’s kind of where the struggle is.”

Stan Houseman, a nearby resident who’s grown weary from the cycle of leaks and invasive construction along the trail, said he’s convinced the Portland bureau is intent on moving forward regardless of the project’s practicality or effects on neighbors.

“All they want to do is build it, but they’ve hit a wall,” he said on Monday. “Now it’s time to stop and reexamine. It’s a sign of insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again.”

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