Hearing brings out many against changing irrigation water from Class A to Class C

It was quite a contentious public hearing between folks from greater Molalla and the DEQ discussing Molalla's request to take irrigation wastewater from the highest quality to a lower quality, from Class A to Class C.

Some in the audience said they see the request as the city trying to take advantage of DEQ rules. They also expressed that DEQ was failing the people.

In 2015, the city sought a permit for Class A wastewater used during the summer to irrigate Coleman Ranch fields as well as a cemetery and the treatment plant site. Class A is the highest quality with the least amount of coliform bacteria left in the treated water. Within the past three years, according to residents, the city has failed to meet Class A standards and has been fined by DEQ.

Class C is similar to Class B, according to DEQ and the engineers from the Dyer Partnership who are helping the Public Works Department with the Master Plan.

A number of the people at the hearing suggested the city isn't doing enough to meet the wastewater quality Molalla needs and weren't in favor of any changes to lower the quality.

They were concerned that saturated soil could integrate the treated water into ground water. Others reached so far as to question wind speed and its effects on bikers during irrigation.

But the plan, according to the Dyer Partnership, is that the new plant will have the capacity for Class B with the ability, at times, to produce Class A. The new plant will have disinfection for Class B to produce the same water as Class A, said Tyler Monatore from the company, and the city will be able to have filters for Class A. It will allow Class B or better and still be in compliance with Class C standards, he said.

Nitrogen is added to the water to help grass grow and provide nutrients for cattle and the soil. However, the city only adds half the amount Oregon State University recommends so there is no nitrogen left in the soil. A city council member noted that 56 pounds per acre is significantly less than 120 pounds per acre.

"The city meets permitted limits of turbidity and other pollutants. Residential areas should not be worried about other pollutants," said DeLise Palumbo, city council member.

The new Class C permit will change the amount of pollution the facility is allowed to release, "but only when irrigating sites that are approved for lower quality recycled water and only with precautions to protect public health in place," according to a DEQ public notice.

A table on that same public notice states that Class A has a median of 2.2 organisms per 100ml and no more than 23 total organisms in a single 100ml sample, compared with Class C at a 7-day median of 23 organisms per 100ml and no more than 240 total organisms in a single 100ml sample.

Residents also brought up concerns regarding pharmaceuticals and heavy metals in the wastewater. But DEQ representative Pat Hines and Gerald Fisher, the city's public works director, noted that there are no cumulative build-ups in that water.

"You would have to consume an Olympic swimming pool of water to get one dose of a pharmaceutical," Hines said.

Currently there is no method available to take medications out of the water, but there are scientists working on the potential problem. The city has a program to deliver unused antibiotics and other medicines to the city so they can be disposed of properly instead of in a landfill or down the toilet.

"The city has a terrible reputation for violations. There's something fishy if they need to go from Class A to Class C," said area resident Patrick Conley.

But Mayor Jimmy Thompson explained that the city can't meet that standard given the current plant. Instead the city is working on a Master Plan to build an entirely new plant, which will help as the community grows, but it's a "big step."

"These regulators are serving people rather than covering up failing plans," Thompson said in response to critics that DEQ was aiding the city rather than keeping them honest about failures.

Palumbo added that Class C designation meets many other cities' actions in Oregon.

"The city will continue to produce A or B while complying with Class C," Palumbo said.

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