EPA official: Testing for contaminants in reservoirs inadequate
Mike Gearheard has heard the complaints - and he's not buying them.
Gearheard is an official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He directs the agency's Office of Water and Watersheds for the region that includes Portland.
For more than two years, Gearheard has heard that his agency wants the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on its water system for no reason at all.
Citizen activists claim the EPA is requiring Portland to fight a potentially deadly parasite - cryptosporidium - that never has been proven to make anyone in town sick.
The grass-roots organization Friends of the Reservoirs operates a Web site that lists 12 reasons why Portland should not be forced to comply with this requirement. They include claims that cryptosporidium never has been found in the open reservoirs at Mount Tabor and Washington parks - reservoirs that the EPA wants covered or disconnected from the water distribution system.
'This will be tremendously expensive, and there's just no reason for it,' said Floy Jones, a founding member of the organization.
Gearheard insists the EPA knows what it's doing, however.
'We're in the public health business, and that's what this is all about,' Gearheard said.
As Gearheard sees it, people already may be getting sick from drinking Portland water. Multnomah County health officials confirm that around 20 residents a year have been diagnosed as sickened by cryptosporidium since 1995.
Although no case ever has been traced back to city water, the exact source of the contamination rarely is identified because there usually are a number of potential sources, including public pools.
'You can't say there's no proof anyone has ever gotten sick drinking the water,' Gearheard said. 'We've moved past that.'
Cryptosporidium is found in human and animal waste. Gearheard notes that cryptosporidium, in fact, has been found in the Bull Run watershed, the source of most of Portland's water.
More tests may find more toxins
Although none has been found since 2002, Gearheard is unwilling to give the city a clean bill of health. To him, the lack of cryptosporidium simply could mean the city hasn't tested the water enough in the past six years.
Portland Water Bureau officials admit he has a point. Director David Schaff notes his agency tests only 50 liters of Bull Run water a month - a microscopic portion of the hundreds of millions of gallons that are always in the watershed. And, Schaff said, the bureau never has regularly tested the water in the open reservoirs for contaminants.
The small amount of testing may bolster Gearheard's argument that the city cannot really prove there is no cryptosporidium in the water. But it also gives the city water bureau a final alternative for not having to comply with the potentially expensive EPA requirements.
Water bureau and EPA officials are discussing how the city could substantially increase the amount of Bull Run water it tests. If the additional tests still find no cryptosporidium, the EPA could grant the city a variance from the requirement, which is included in a rule called Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment, or LT2 for short.
The bureau is looking at increasing the volume tested to 200 liters a month, although a final decision has yet to be made. Schaff admits that if virtually any traces of cryptosporidium are found, the city will have a hard time arguing it should not have to treat its water - regardless of the cost and potential impacts on the open reservoirs.
'If there's cryptosporidium in the water, we need to know it,' Schaff said.
Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Gary Oxman supports increased testing. Oxman does not believe there is enough cryptosporidium in Portland's drinking water to worry about, arguing that the Bull Run watershed is well protected against such common sources as people and livestock.
'Portland's watershed is unique,' Oxman said. 'In some other cities, people live in the watershed and they have industries there. But not in the Bull Run watershed.'
At the same time, Oxman is working with both the bureau and EPA to help them develop an increased testing program.
Despite his confidence in the safety of Bull Run water, Oxman says the increased testing ultimately might find enough cryptosporidium to violate the low levels allowed in the EPA rule.
Backup plan essential
That possibility helps explain why Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the water bureau, has directed Schaff to plan how to comply with the requirement. Doing so will require the bureau to treat all water for cryptosporidium before it enters the distribution pipes to homes and businesses.
This is complicated by the bureau's six open reservoirs - four in Mount Tabor Park and two in Washington Park. If left untouched, the city would have to build treatment facilities at each one that connects to distribution pipes. Schaff said this is virtually impossible, given the lack of available land adjacent to some of them.
The other option is to build a single treatment plant in the Bull Run watershed and either cover the open reservoirs or disconnect them from the distribution system. This is the approach the bureau is studying.
Leonard currently favors disconnecting the open reservoirs and preserving some or all of them as historic properties. It would require building a second 50-million-gallon underground reservoir in the Powell Butte Natural Area to replace the storage capacity that would be lost.
The perils of the open reservoirs were graphically illustrated early Saturday morning when two people were caught skinny-dipping in one at Mount Tabor Park. Portland police arrested Ryan Langsdorf, 28, and Ashley Moyer, 23, and cited them on trespassing charges. They were found in a section of Reservoir 6 that happened to be off-line at the time.
'Not only did this foolish act threaten the cleanliness of Portland's drinking water, it was just plain dangerous,' Shaff said. 'These two individuals could have easily found themselves in a precarious situation where extremely cold water temperatures and a difficult rescue situation could have made drowning a real possibility.'
Leonard stresses that no decisions have been made yet about the treatment plant, new reservoir and future of the open reservoirs. Cost estimates and construction schedules still are being developed. And there is always the possibility - however remote - that the EPA will let Portland off the hook.
But Leonard admits he already has discussed the idea with Mayor-elect Sam Adams, just in case. The funds would have to be included in future bureau budgets.
As a final resort, the city could ask Congress for an exemption from the LT2 rules. This is the alternative advocated by Friends of the Reservoirs.
Leonard and bureau officials have raised this possibility with some members of the Oregon congressional delegation. According to Leonard, they said the city should first pursue the variance and only seek congressional help if the EPA was being unreasonable.