Will ratepayers get a refund? Not so fast, commissioner says

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The Arkema property on the Willamette River shore near the St. Johns Bridge, is part of the Willamette Superfund cleanup site. Portland city officials are sending mixed messages about sewer rate funds that have been part of the superfund costs.The city of Portland is sending mixed messages about the $52 million that sewer ratepayers have paid for the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup — and whether they’ll get that money refunded.

Bureau of Environmental Services ratepayers have been paying for nearly all the city’s spending on the Superfund cleanup for 13 years. During that time, it has not been spelled out what role the sewer system played in fouling the Willamette River bottom, and whether ratepayers would get some or all of that money back.

In 2011, a group of corporate water and sewer customers sued the city, saying water and sewer funds have been used as a cookie jar for unrelated city spending, including the Superfund cleanup.

In December 2012, the Portland City Council passed a resolution spelling out that the council ultimately will determine which bureaus, if any, pay for part of the Superfund cleanup, based on their liability for polluting the river.

Last month, Dean Marriott, the longtime BES director, said it was always assumed that sewer ratepayers were fronting the money for the Superfund, and that now it’s clear the bureau bears no responsibility for the kind of pollution at issue in the Superfund process.

Though the sewer system transmits E. coli and other nasty stuff into the river when the sewer system gets overloaded by heavy rains, that bacteria generally washes downstream rather quickly. It was PCBs, DDT and other contaminants dumped into the river by manufacturers that caused most of the polluted river bottom sediment that was the main target of the Superfund cleanup.

To Kent Craford, a leading critic of city sewer and water spending, Marriott’s comments implied that the $52 million was really a loan from ratepayers, and they’d eventually be repaid. Craford said ratepayers ought to be paid back with interest.

But city Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who was the commissioner in charge of BES, had a different view last week when he spoke to the Portland Tribune editorial board.

“It’s kind of looking like the sewer system is less culpable than we originally thought,” Saltzman said. “I still believe there should be some ratepayer contribution” to the Superfund cleanup.

When asked about Marriott’s contention that the BES merely fronted the money and bears no responsibility for cleanup costs, Saltzman answered: “I think that’s always been Dean’s expectation. Dean’s a great protector of ratepayers.”

However, Saltzman doesn’t exactly share that view.

He did say that the city needs to find a way to spread the financial burden among other sources of funding in the general fund, aside from billing sewer ratepayers. It’s not clear when that would occur.

Craford said it’s surprising that Marriott and his former boss, Saltzman, have a different interpretation of this issue. “That’s concerning when we’ve got $52 million in question,” Craford said. But he said both city officials acknowledge that sewer ratepayers shouldn’t be picking up the full city tab for the Superfund cleanup.

“It’s time they stop using ratepayers as a credit card to fund this expenditure,” Craford said.

The issue figures to get more attention in the May initiative campaign, led partly by Craford, over whether to shift the city water and sewer bureaus to oversight by an independently elected board, instead of the City Council. Craford and his allies also are awaiting a judge’s decision on whether the Superfund funds were properly billed to sewer ratepayers, as part of their ongoing lawsuit.

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