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Long history of Johnson Creek pollution winds back to Precision Castparts

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Johnson Creek, at the Tideman-Johnson Natural Area, is located less than a half-mile downstream of Precision Castparts plants in the Errol Heights neighborhood.  Johnson Creek begins its 26-mile journey from pristine headwaters in the Cascade foothills near Boring, but as it snakes through Gresham, Portland and Milwaukie, it picks up a contaminated payload before spilling into the Willamette River.

At an oxbow three miles from the mouth of Johnson Creek, it flows 400 feet from side-by-side Precision Castparts Corp. manufacturing plants along Johnson Creek Boulevard, which Portland regulators found have repeatedly discharged toxins into a storm pipe draining into the creek.

As reported, ('Protesters target Precision Castparts,' March 31), the air around the metals plants in the Errol Heights neighborhood constitutes a toxic hot spot, where the Environmental Protection Agency calculates residents face a higher cancer risk because of toxic air emissions. Southeast Portland activists, who mobilized in response to toxic emissions from two eastside glass makers, recently turned their attention to Precision Castparts, a far bigger polluter.

A review of regulatory files shows that Precision Castparts’ history of pollution goes well beyond smokestacks fouling the air, to include repeated violations affecting Johnson Creek. The long-neglected creek, also polluted by animal waste, pesticides and other sources, has become a local environmental success story after extensive restoration efforts led by the Johnson Creek Watershed Council ushered the return of salmon and steelhead. Coho salmon, steelhead and lamprey eels have been documented in Johnson Creek near the metals plants.

Precision Castparts declined to respond to questions about discharges from its plants, the PCC Structurals Large Parts Campus at 4600 S.E. Harney St., where it has produced parts for jet engines and other devices since 1957. Instead, it released a one-paragraph written response, saying the company’s air and water emissions are “in full compliance with permits” and the company is “committed to the safety of our employees and neighbors and in minimizing our impact on the environment.”

Warning sign

A decade ago, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality conducted an evaluation of pollutants in Johnson Creek, called a Total Maximum Daily Load assessment. DEQ found water quality was “very poor throughout the year.” It was worse than all DEQ-monitored sites in the Willamette River basin except for the Columbia Slough.

In 2008 and than again in 2012, the city Bureau of Environmental Services found that Precision Castparts illegally discharged urea-laced water to the city storm drain serving its property, which feeds into Johnson Creek.

In December 2012, the Bureau of Environmental Services detected PCBs (a carcinogenic compound also known as polychlorinated biphenyls) in the creek near the Precision Castparts plants.

After an investigation, the bureau determined in 2013 that the company violated the city code by putting PCBs into the creek, which it found at levels that exceeded human health standards. Bureau investigators also found elevated levels of at least a dozen other highly toxic compounds, including several that are carcinogenic, in creek sediments near the outfall of the city-owned storm drain into the creek. The storm drain, several feet in diameter, largely serves the Precision Castparts plants, extending underground about 1,000 feet to empty into the creek.

“We found elevated levels in Johnson Creek and sourced it back to PCC,” said Matt Criblez, head of enforcement for the Bureau of Environmental Services.

Contaminants were found at several locations in the creek just downstream from the storm drain outfall, but none at any point upstream, Criblez said.

The bureau detected measurable quantities of arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, nickel, zinc, chromium, lead, selenium, silver and seven types of hydrocarbons in creek sediments and in the storm drain. Most of these compounds exceeded health-based benchmarks.

The presence of arsenic and cadmium in the storm drain and creek raises questions about Precision Castparts’ recent statement to the Portland Tribune, which said: “We do not use arsenic or cadmium as part of our processes.”

Watershed Council in the dark

Daniel Newberry, executive director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, said his group has not been notified about pollutants found in the creek near the PCC plant.

“That’s very serious,” he said of the contamination. “I would like to know. I would hope the DEQ would send me some information or give me a call.”

The Johnson Creek Watershed Council is a nonprofit dedicated to restoring water quality in the creek and associated wildlife habitat, with state funding from Oregon State Lottery earnings.

A park known as the Tideman-Johnson Natural Area is located less than a half-mile downstream of the PCC site. The Springwater Trail, used by bicyclists and hikers, is located nearby. No warnings about the pollution have been posted in the park or on the trail. “I have seen plenty of kids playing in Johnson Creek down there,” Newberry said. “One question is whether parents should let their kids play in the creek.”

In addition to contaminants in the creek near the sewer outfall, the Bureau of Environmental Services found a “gelatinous goo” inside the drain pipe. After further analysis, it determined the goo contained toxic material. The city believes the contamination may have been released intermittently for an unknown number of years prior to its discovery, Criblez said.

In April 2014, the Bureau of Environmental Services issued a a notice of violation to Precision Castparts.

“The gelatinous material continued throughout the stormwater line to its terminus at the outfall to Johnson Creek,” the notice stated. The notice accused the company of illegally discharging untreated industrial waste into the drain, assessing a $1,050 civil penalty. The notice required the company to clean out the storm drain.

Criblez said pollution entering Johnson Creek via the city storm drain may also constitute a violation of the Clean Water Act. If the DEQ or the EPA ever finds such a violation, “we will issue a separate violation against PCC for violation of our permit,” Criblez said. “As of now, we are not in noncompliance.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - A bicyclist crosses over Johnson Creek on the Springwater Corridor Trail, near the Precision Castparts metals plants near Johnson Creek Boulevard in the Errol Heights neighborhood. Precision Castparts denies responsibility

For several months in 2014, the company denied any responsibility for the pollution, claiming its own tests had showed that the waste found in the storm drain was nothing other than “pond scum” that came from an area known as the Flavel Ridge Wetland located about 100 yards east of the plant, according to a letter sent by Precision Castparts to the city. It said tests revealed the waste had the same characteristics of biological material found in a pond at the wetlands. 

“We would appreciate it if you would contact the owners of this pond and that they not allow noxious material to enter the (drain),” Precision Castparts stated in an April 14, 2014 letter to the city. “We do not believe that there is any basis for concluding that this gelatinous material has any relationship to PCC or its discharges.” Cleaning the drain “should not be the responsibility of PCC Structurals,” the company wrote.

But the city insisted that a chemical analysis of the goo “further supports the City’s assertion that the source of the gelatinous material originated from PCC Structurals’ campus,” according to a Bureau of Environmental Services compliance order.

Precision Castparts agrees to cleanup

Later in 2014, the company agreed to pay the $1,050 civil penalty and clean up the storm drain. By last year, Precision Castparts collected about 20.5 tons of solid waste from the drain, which was sent to a Waste Management landfill in Hillsboro for disposal.

About 25 dead fish were found in the storm drain, including two dead steelhead and one live steelhead, according to Criblez and Paul Seidel, a toxicologist with the DEQ.

Precision Castparts agreed to add a fish weir, so that fish can’t swim from Johnson Creek up into the storm drain.

Storm drain material included unknown amounts of three lightly radioactive thorium isotopes, as well as PCBs. Another three drums of thorium, lead and other material were sent to a hazardous waste landfill in Idaho.

PCC has acknowledged that it uses radioactive thorium in its manufacturing process.

The company agreed to prepare a treatment plan for effluent it sends into the city storm drainage pipe by this June.

DEQ addressing groundwater pollution from plants

While the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services works with Precision Castparts to clean up its toxic discharges into Johnson Creek, the state Department of Environmental Quality has pursued a years-long investigation of its discharges into groundwater, starting in the 1990s. In 1996, DEQ found a plume of two carcinogenic solvents down as far as 60 feet beneath the plant, said Dan Hafley, a DEQ hydrogeologist. The chemicals are perchloroethene and trichloroethene. 

In 2008, DEQ launched a formal remediation investigation, said Paul Seidel, a DEQ toxicologist.

The plume is not considered to be a threat to drinking water wells in the area, including wells operated by the city of Milwaukie, Seidel said. But it may pose a threat if new wells are dug in the area. Milwaukie’s wells go down 200 feet and are located about a mile from the toxic plume.

The DEQ is investigating the location of the plume and its potential effects on Johnson Creek, and will be developing a cleanup plan, Seidel said. The process involves digging multiple wells.

“The costs are not known until estimates are developed during the feasibility study,” he said. “The responsible party will fund this work.”

Precision Castparts and Johnson Creek: A brief chronology

• 2008: Portland Bureau of Environmental Services finds Precision Castparts illegally discharged urea-laced water into a city storm drain flowing into Johnson Creek.

• 2012: BES again finds Precision Castparts illegally discharged urea-laced water into the city storm drain.

• 2012: BES detects PCBs in Johnson Creek near the Precision Castparts plants

• 2013: BES investigation determines Precision Castparts put PCBs into the creek, and finds a dozen other toxic compounds in creek sediments near the storm drain outfall into the creek.

• 2014: BES issues notice of violation to Precision Castparts, saying it illegally discharged untreated industrial waste into the storm drain.

• 2015: Precision Castparts cleans out toxins in the city storm drain under its property, and installs fish weir so they can’t swim from Johnson Creek into the storm drain.

• June 2016: Precision Castparts to finish treatment plan for effluent it sends into the city storm drainage pipe.

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