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Firefighters evacuate Balloon Festival after suspicious smell

It was a case of mistaken identity that lead Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue crews to partially evacuate the Tigard Festival of Balloons on Saturday night, TVF&R said, after a suspicious chemical smell was discovered near the festival grounds.

It was just after 10 p.m., Saturday, June 27, when firefighters with TVF&R detected a strong chemical smell near Southwest 85th Avenue and Durham Road, not far from the Clean Water Services’ Durham Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility,  16060 S.W. 85th Ave.

Firefighters discovered the smell — which they said smelled like chlorine — as they were returning from a call. At the same time, crew spotted a suspicious plume floating near the treatment plant.

The plant is only a few blocks from Cook Park, where the Tigard Festival of Balloons was taking place throughout the weekend,.

Piseth Pich, a spokesman with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, said that crews were concerned that the chemical smell might pose a danger to people at the festival. Firefighters called in the department's hazardous materials team and began evacuating the park.

“As they got closer, the smell got a lot stronger, so that’s why they called in the hazmat team,” Pich said. “If it was a danger, they wanted to be prepared for it.”

But Ely O’Connor, a spokeswoman with Clean Water Services, which runs the wastewater treatment plant, said that the smell and strange cloud were part of the treatment plants daily operations.

“What firefighters are calling a plume was just water vapor and part of normal operations at the facility,” she said. The smell was likely diluted bleach that the facility uses to control waste odors.

“If we didn’t use that, what neighbors would smell is wastewater smells,” O’Connor said. “Nobody wants that. It’s a constant thing that we do. We are always treating wastewater, so we are controlling odor as well.”

But Pich said that crews didn't know that at the time, and called in Tigard Police and additional firefighters to close down a portion of Durham Road near Tigard High School, and began evacuating Cook Park as a safety precaution.

People in nearby homes were advised to shelter-in-place and keep doors and windows closed, Pich said. Firefighters closed off access to festival parking, which was located at the Tigard Swim Center, a block from the water treatment facility.

After about 15 minutes, the water vapor cloud dissipated and hazmat team determined that there was no threat. At that time, the evacuation order was rescinded, Pich said.

“Once our hazmat team confirmed that everything was safe, we let people get back to their vehicles,” Pich said.

Pich said that the high temperatures may have exacerbated the situation.

“It may have smelled the way it did because of the weather conditions,” Pich said.

O’Connor said that the situation was unfortunate, but said that crews were being precautious because of the festival down the road.

“Because of the close relationship that we have with TVF&R, we were able to communicate with them about what was happening,” O’Connor said. “I’m glad that it didn’t get to the point of evacuating people from their homes.”

O’Connor said that the incident was a teachable moment. More people should know about how the facility operates, she said.

Clean Water Services is planning an open house of the facility on July 15 to educate the public about what the plant does.

That treatment facility has been in place for decades and treats wastewater from Tigard, Durham, King City, Tualatin, Sherwood and Beaverton, as well as portions of Clackamas and Multnomah counties.

For more information on the open house call (503) 547-8008 or stewmond@cleanwaterservices.org.


By Geoff Pursinger
Reporter
503-546-0744
email: gpursinger@commnewspapers.com
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