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DEQ to review abandoned landfill for leaked toxins

Results, expected in October, to show effects on Johnson Creek.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO DIAZ - A volunteer finds plenty of trash in and around the water during the annual Johnson Creek Clean Up. DEQ has vowed to check whether a former dump is leaking industrial waste into the creek.  The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is taking a “fresh look” at an abandoned landfill in Southeast Portland to determine whether it poses a pollution threat to Johnson Creek, according to Keith Johnson, a hazardous waste administrator with the agency.

On Sept. 8, a Portland Tribune article revealed that the landfill — several blocks from Johnson Creek — was built without a protective barrier to prevent its contents from seeping into the groundwater, and was used by local metals manufacturer Precision Castparts to stow industrial waste after it was officially closed and its solid waste license had expired.

Speaking at last week's public forum on pollution in Johnson Creek, co-sponsored by the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and South Portland Air Quality, Johnson confirmed those elements of the Tribune story, but would not comment on whether the landfill poses a threat to the creek. For that information, he said the public will have to wait until October, when the DEQ issues its report. Johnson said he did not know whether the company’s use of a closed landfill whose permit had expired violated any laws.

Joining Johnson at the forum were about 20 residents of the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, two other DEQ staff members, a representative of the Oregon Health Authority and two from the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services. They presented what was billed as the latest information on pollution in the creek, from its headwaters near Boring to where it flows into the Willamette River in Milwaukie.

Johnson said the DEQ hasn’t forgotten about the landfill, as the Tribune story stated, but acknowledged that its most recent data on contamination leaking from the old dump is from the 1990s.

Since then, the dump has been a “low priority” at the DEQ, he said.

Attendees at the forum also learned about several other examples of the creek’s myriad pollution problems, including a 2014 document showing that several chemicals and heavy metals contaminate the creek along a quarter-mile stretch just downstream from a Precision Castparts plant at Southeast Harney Street and 46th Avenue. That study found high levels of PCBs, nickel, zinc and chromium, said Paul Seidel, a toxicologist with the DEQ.

No tests have been conducted to determine whether any of the chromium is of the highly carcinogenic hexavalent variety, Seidel said.

In 2005, the DEQ sampled creek sediments at 45 different locations along its 24-mile course. That study found several pesticides near the headwaters, including the banned DDT, and petroleum hydrocarbons throughout, Seidel said. Levels of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were higher downstream but present throughout, he said.

Those at the forum also heard from the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services. On 10 occasions in the past eight years, the BES found Precision Castparts’ discharges to the stormwater system violated the city code. The company discharged that pollution directly into a storm drain, and in most of these cases, it eventually reached the creek.

The pollution enters the creek at an outfall located near Southeast Umatilla Street.

Two of those incidents occurred this year. On July 7, the BES reported that 4 ounces of oil from a vacuum pump was spilled at the plant, causing an oil sheen that later surfaced at the creek. In March, the contents of an oil drum spilled, resulting in another oil sheen in the creek.

On June 30, in an effort to protect the creek, Precision Castparts installed a state-of-the-art water treatment plant on its stormwater system.

Today, the company says the treatment plant treats all the pollution that enters the stormwater system. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop the July spill — which occurred seven days after the treatment system began operating — from polluting the creek.

Julie Sifuentes, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said bacterial levels in the creek caused by human and animal waste are so high that she recommends that no one go swimming there. However, she said the levels of toxic contamination from industrial pollution are too low to pose any health risks from short-term exposures.

In 2017, the OHA will examine the potential effects of long-term exposures as part of what it calls a Public Health Assessment. In addition, it is conducting a fish consumption study, based on contamination found in crayfish. It plans to release that study in December, Sifuentes said.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Daniel Newberry, executive director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, talks with concerned residents about the current state of the creek.Daniel Newberry, executive director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, said he wasn’t aware of the DEQ’s 2005 sediment study. Nor was he aware that PCBs have been found throughout the creek, with the heaviest concentrations near the mouth.

“I would like to see more PCB testing to identify any potential point sources,” he said. “I do realize, however, how expensive that is. A message I'd like to get out is that DEQ is woefully underfunded in the area of environmental monitoring and compliance. Johnson Creek — and other urban streams as well — have water quality problems that can't be addressed until we know the sources."

Newberry said it will take a “coordinated, concerted effort of education and regulation” to improve the condition of the creek. He said he expects Precision Castparts’ new stormwater treatment plan facility will help, “though we'll have to wait for the monitoring results over the next year to confirm the efficacy of this technology.”

Shana Canote, of the South Portland Air Quality neighborhood group, said the information she learned at the forum was encouraging. “There are a lot more people paying attention to this than I had thought,” she said. “It made me feel the creek is safer than I thought.”

“Note that I said safer, but not safe,” she added. “I have a son and I do not want him playing in the creek.”