Oregon considers easing clean water standards

Oregon considers easing clean water standards
November 2005
U.S. Water News Online

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is moving to ease restrictions on waste water
discharged into rivers from paper mills, factories, construction and other sources, saying industry has a hard time
meeting the current standards, which are only enforced part of the time.

The change marks the first time the agency has tried to alter clean water standards dating to the 1970s under a
provision approved by the Legislature in 1997 that allows industries to pay for work that the state cannot pay for on its

The rules only apply to turbidity, a measure of suspended solids in the water. Turbidity affects the costs born by cities
filtering drinking water, whether fish and other predators can see to feed, and whether sunlight can reach underwater
plant life.

The Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, which represents paper mills, paid $102,705 of the roughly $260,000
spent by DEQ to develop the revisions, according to documents and interviews.

Bob Baumgartner of DEQ's water quality division said the money did not earn the association any undue influence,
and the state is imposing tighter limits than the industry wanted.

DEQ Director Stephanie Hallock said the revisions are fair and sound, and outside money is a critical tool for the

"I look at it as an attempt to make a workable standard," that is scientifically sound and can be applied more
consistently, she said.

The proposed changes are open for public comment and must be approved by the state Environmental Quality
Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under the new rules, discharges would be allowed to increase the turbidity of the average Oregon river by 30 percent
at times. Smaller streams could become twice as murky.

The department said Oregon rivers are so clear to begin with and the changes are so small that the impact on rivers
would be hardly noticeable and would not harm salmon, which depend on clean water, or the safety of drinking water.

Environmental groups said the agency, struggling under inadequate funding, is bowing to the very industry it is
supposed to regulate.

"Their argument is, `We don't enforce the standard, so we're going to make one that's weak so it's easier to enforce,"
said Brent Foster of Columbia Riverkeeper. "It just shows the complete lack of backbone in DEQ."

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center forced the cleanup of brown industrial wastewater flowing into the
Columbia Slough under the current rules, but that would be impossible under the proposed changes, said executive
director Mark Riskedahl.

"They keep taking the tools away," he said. "There is no evidence they would enforce even a weaker standard."

Mark Morford, a Portland attorney who represents paper mills, said the current rules are out of date and lack specifics,
leaving mills to face unpredictable costs. The changes would make rules more precise and consistent.

Tom Rosetta of DEQ said the new rules could be applied to some construction that is now exempted from the current
rules because they are so hard to meet, leaving some rivers cleaner.