Legality of Portland Harbor cleanup fund challenged
Advocates for Portland water and sewer ratepayers who have clashed with the City Council in the past are at it again.
Lawyers representing Kent Craford and Floy Jones have filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court to prevent the city from transferring $12 million in sewer ratepayer funds to a trust at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Other parties that share potential liability can draw from the trust to finance research and development for the cleanup plans. The city will be credited by the EPA for its contribution.
During a Monday morning press conference, Craford said the spending violates City Charter requirements that sewer ratepayer funds can only be spent on sewer-related projects. He said it is inappropriate for sewer funds to be made available to third parties who have nothing to do with the operation of the sewer system.
"The sewer fund is not a piggy bank," said Craford, who insisted that other city bureaus also contributed to pollution in the Portland harbor and should pay their fair share of the cleanup costs.
Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the bureau that operates the swere system, strongly disagrees the city is doing anything improper. He says it is partnering with other potentially responsible partners to share the costs of the long-delayed cleanup.
"We have a legal obligation to contribute to the design work. This approach helps us meet our responsibility while getting a credit from EPA, encouraging progress toward clean-up, and saving public dollars," Fish said after the press conference.
Craford and Jones were plaintiffs in a previous suit charging the council violated the charter by spending water and sewer ratepayer funds on projects not directly related to the primary missions of the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services. The city settled the suit in 2017 by promising to reimburse both bureaus $10 million.
The EPA declared a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River to be a superfund site that must be cleaned up in 2000. The agency is currently negotiating with over 100 potentially responsible parties about which of them should pay for the cleanup, and how much. The negotiations are secret. The city and state are among the parties.
More than $50 million in sewer funds have already been spent planning the cleanup. Although the lawsuit said that spending was illegal, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong, who heard the case, ruled the spending was legal, provided the city eventually determine which other bureaus are liable for cleanup costs and reimburse the sewer fund through a reallocation process. The city has not yet done that.
The lawsuit was filed on Friday, July 12. The environmental services bureau is overseen by Commissioner Nick Fish. on Monday he released a statement says the new lawsuit was "recycled" from the earlier lawsuit and based on claims that the plaintiffs had lost in the first trial.
"During my tenure, we brought sewer and stormwater rates down to below the rate of inflation, while continuing to be a leader in the Willamette River clean-up. I'm disappointed that — again —Portlanders will be asked to foot the bill for an unfounded lawsuit," Fish said in the statement.
Fish also called the trust an innovative approach to kickstarting the cleanup process. The State of Oregon is also contributing $12 million to it, bringing the total to $24 million.
"Not only is the trust a responsible approach for Portland ratepayers and taxpayers, it's become a national model," said Fish.
The City Attorney's Office said that some of the city's future contributions to the trust will come from other sources.
Craford and Jones both agreed the trust may produce benefits, including helping to clean up pollution, but insisted sewer ratepayers should not be the only ones paying for them.
"You can't just keep looking to sewer ratepayers to pay these costs alone. We're closing the cookie jar," Craford said.
You can read a previous Portland Tribune story here.
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