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City leaders provide input about Oswego Lake story

Mayor Judie Hamerstad and City Manager Doug Schmitz
by: Vern Uyetake,

On Nov. 16, the Lake Oswego Review published a cover article with headlines promising that it would reveal how the city and Lake Corporation had worked to 'veil lake pollution.' The article reports that in 2003 the city made a 'discovery' that halted the lake interceptor sewer project.

The article reports that, while pursuing permits for the interceptor project, the city learned that the Lake Corporation had historically used copper sulfate to suppress algae in the lake and potentially contaminated the lakebed. Reading on, however, the paragraphs immediately following correctly recite how the use of this chemical 'has never been a secret here' and that 'anyone who lives here knows it.'

So if the historical use of copper sulfate in the lake is not what was discovered and then veiled, what might the article be referring to? Looking again at the headlines and opening paragraphs, one might assume that the city must have discovered that this well-known activity had resulted in a violation of environmental regulations or in some other form of 'pollution,' and that the city then hid this discovery. This is not correct.

The article discloses no tests or other data showing that copper sulfate levels in Oswego Lake are excessive. The city does not have, nor is it aware of, any such data - and it certainly hasn't hidden any. The only data reported by the Review were the results of a 1991 test of sediments in West Bay, the area that received the highest doses of copper sulfate, showing no problems (the Lake Corporation applied copper sulfate from the 1950s through 2001).

The article reports that in a recent interview the city manager referred to tests of copper sulfate levels by city consultants that raised concerns. However, following this interview, and upon reviewing archived materials from 2003, the city manager realized that he had been remembering geotechnical studies that in fact did not reference copper sulfate. The city regrets that this caused the Review to report that testing had occurred. In 2003, the consultants doing preliminary work on developing a plan for the interceptor pointed out to city management that, because of the widely known fact that the Lake Corporation had used copper sulfate for decades, the city should consider how an in-lake project might be affected if it were discovered after the project is under way that the copper had accumulated beyond regulatory limits. Such a scenario was discussed as one possibility, not as a fact, and it was but one of a number of concerns about the in-water option.

The city manager was concerned about the viability of the untested technology proposed by the consultants and the need to acquire additional easements from the Lake Corporation. He made a business decision that it would not be prudent to simply forge ahead with the preliminary work to develop that particular plan without taking into account what the effect on costs and responsibilities might be if sediment removal did reveal excessive copper levels, and without fully investigating whether there were preferable project options.

For all of these reasons, the preliminary planning for that particular strategy was temporarily put on hold, pending receipt of more information. Since that time, planning has been ongoing and a number of alternatives have been explored, including both an out-of-lake option and a lakebed option that likely would not result in the degree or type of sediment disturbance that would heighten concerns of regulatory agencies.

Consultants and staff have been hard at work assembling the data and cost estimates that will form the basis of a report to the city council. This report and the options outlined in it will be presented at public forums where citizen input on the merits of the various alternatives will be solicited. Following these forums, the city council will conduct a public hearing prior to making a decision as to how to proceed to address sewer capacity issues.

Preliminary meetings among city staff and/or consultants to prepare reports for public meetings are not public meetings themselves. However, that doesn't mean that they are secret, or that the city is hiding information. In fact, the Review article is based upon records received from the city and its consultants, together with statements by city staff and council members.

The article reports that a city council work session relating to the lake sediments took place in the fall of 2003, but that minutes were not kept. This is not accurate. Minutes are kept of all city council meetings, including work sessions. The reason that the Review cannot find minutes of such a work session is because no such work session occurred.

The city has no data showing excessive copper levels. What water quality data the city does have has been provided upon request. The city has rejected suggestions that such data be confidential.

It is appropriate for citizens to be concerned about whether copper levels in the lake sediment are excessive. It is also appropriate for the Review to publish an article about this potential issue. However, it is not accurate to suggest that the city has somehow discovered and then veiled data showing that such a problem exists.

Judie Hammerstad is mayor of Lake Oswego; Doug Schmitz is the city manager.

Editor's note: The work session referred to in the article was first brought to attention of the Review by a city councilor. In subsequent interviews with other city councilors, the majority recalled being briefed on copper and other problems in the sewer project by a city engineer sometime in the fall of 2003.