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Runoff issues flow to court

SUSTAINABLE LIFE: Environmentalists keep pressure on DEQ to update policy, permits

While Portland already is considered a national leader in 'green' building practices, a lawsuit going to court this week could add a new level of urgency to the city's efforts.

On Thursday, lawyers for environmental groups and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality will meet in Multnomah County Circuit Court to debate whether the state's storm water-runoff controls affecting Portland and surrounding areas go far enough.

The case highlights one of the toughest problems environmental regulators face: storm-water runoff, which is what rain turns into after it hits the pavement.

The rain collects chemicals leaked by cars and trucks as well as fertilizer, pesticides, dirt and other contaminants.

Environmentalists are challenging storm-water permits that the DEQ issued to the city of Portland, as well as the Port of Portland, Multnomah County and other local jurisdictions, such as Clean Water Services in Washington County.

They say the permits don't do enough to protect swimmers, anglers and endangered fish.

Portland environmentalist Liz Callison, one of the plaintiffs, said, 'We just want the DEQ to start doing the job it is paid to do: enforce the state's basic water quality standards.'

DEQ officials declined to comment on the litigation but maintain that they are undertaking all reasonable measures to improve water quality. Generally speaking, 'there is the expectation that things will improve over time,' said Greg Geist of the DEQ.

City officials declined to comment on the pending litigation.

However, Portland is considered to be ahead of most cities in terms of environmentally sensitive building and planning practices, which seek to use plants and holding ponds to divert storm water from drains.

Commissioner Sam Adams, who oversees the Bureau of Environmental Services, will propose a 'green street' policy to promote such measures to the City Council at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Charles Logue, a storm water-program manager for Washington County's Clean Water Services agency, said that while it's relatively easy to watchdog a single pipe from a particular factory, storm-water runoff is a much dicier proposition because 'so much of it is related to people's personal behavior.'

Anyone who uses pesticides or fertilizer in a garden is contributing to toxic pollution in storm water. So are commuters who don't replace their brake pads in a timely fashion, or fix leaks in their car.

Making local jurisdictions responsible for hard limits on storm-water pollution, as environmentalists' wish, could cost the affected agencies millions of dollars, according to Logue.

He said Washington County would have to build a new treatment plant just to deal with storm water.

'We're trying to get the best use of our ratepayers' dollars for water quality benefits,' Logue said.

The lawsuit rests on a seeming contradiction in federal and state law. In writing storm-water permits, state regulators have been employing a federal standard, that permits should curb pollution to the 'maximum extent practicable.'

State law, however, prohibits the discharge of wastes if the discharges 'reduce the quality of such waters below the water quality standards.'

Environmentalists say the state has not stepped in to protect waterways like the Columbia River Slough and the Tualatin River from the degrading effects of storm water - which contains levels of toxic pollution that can harm or kill fish in the immediate area of the release, plaintiff Brent Foster of Columbia Riverkeeper said.

He was echoed by co-plaintiff Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper, who said the current permits are 'essentially unenforceable (and) if there's no clear point which they have to reach, then you're really talking about something that goes against the public trust.'

Mark Riskedahl of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, which is not involved in the suit, said that the state should require that storm-water runoff meets hard limits on toxic contaminants as other states do.

'Washington and California are ahead of us,' he said. 'This is Oregon - we shouldn't be playing catch-up on this stuff, we should be leading the nation.'

New chemicals add to mix

DEQ officials long have said they do the best they can given their limited resources, as well as the political realities of a largely rural state. However, Oregon's clean-water efforts have drawn increasing scrutiny over the years.

In January 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency sent the state a letter that leveled a number of criticisms at the state. Among other things, it echoed the central charge of the storm-water lawsuit, saying that DEQ had issued permits that don't properly take into account the dischargers' effect on already polluted waterways.

The storm-water lawsuit is just one of several current efforts by environmentalists to ratchet up the pressure on the DEQ.

In December 2005, for example, Northwest Environmental Advocates filed a lawsuit challenging Oregon's water quality standards, saying they do not protect endangered salmon.

Riskedahl's group, meanwhile, is working on a request asking the EPA to take over the state's water-quality program, arguing that it fails to undertake basic monitoring and other measures necessary to protect water quality.

He called it 'sort of the first heads-up to EPA that we're concerned that Oregon does not meet minimum requirements.'

Sonja Biorn-Hansen, a DEQ environmental engineer who studied the Columbia Slough, tried to put the criticisms of regulators' efforts in context in a 2005 article for Rachel's Environment and Health News.

Speaking for herself, she argued the focus on certain chemicals might be overdone and out of balance.

She noted that state and federal water regulators focus on a 'priority' list of just 120 pollutants that was formulated in the 1970s. Since then, tens of thousands of chemicals have been adopted for use in the United States, but the list has not been updated.

'To put matters as bluntly as possible, we are regulating an out-of-date and possibly arbitrary 0.17 percent of the chemicals out there,' she wrote. 'I am surprised by the silence around this problem.'

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