Rural residents slam proposed Water Bureau treatment plant
On the heels of a mandate from Oregon Health Authority, the Portland Water Bureau plans to build a new filtration plant by 2027.
Though the more than $350 million project won't become reality for years, neighbors just down the road from the proposed plant site on Carpenter Lane in eastern Multnomah County, are worried now.
The plant is the result of multiple incidents of detection of cryptosporidium, a potentially deadly organism that was first found in the Bull Run watershed in 2016.
The Portland City Council approved the plant location on Dec. 12, 2018. During the hearing, bureau officials testified they had studied six locations, with Carpenter Lane the only one that met all of the bureau's criteria, including: being property the bureau owned; zoning to allow a filtration plant; and the right elevation to allow gravity to move water into and out of the plant to keep operating costs down.
The water bureau bills the project as a promising venture to improve water quality for its customers, but citizens of Boring and Portland have united over a plethora of concerns related to the plant, such as water cleanliness, impact on the "rural feel" of the area and potential increases in water prices.
Four people who live on Carpenter Lane testified against the location at the December hearing.
Doug and Pat Meyer said the plant will lower the value of the surrounding properties, including those along the pipelines that will be built to and from the plant.
Brent and Linda Leathers claim the plant will destroy the rural feel of the area, and Brent said he will exhaust every legal avenue to prevent the plant from being built. The Leatherses have since formed an online group called "Citizens for Peaceful Rural Living," through which they facilitate community discussion on the project and ensure residents are aware of upcoming bureau activities.
Cart before the horse?
A major point of contention for many residents affected by the bureau's plans is a perceived lack of communication.
Former Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, who lives above the Sandy River with her husband Mike, said she has heard concerns from other residents. McKeel said she is not worried about the potential impact on their own property, but believes those talking to her have legitimate concerns that the Portland Water Bureau has not yet resolved.
As McKeel sees it, Portland City Council helped create the concerns by approving the site for the project before the bureau had contacted area residents to explain what was being considered. As a former elected official, McKeel noted that is a frequent failing of governments at all levels.
"They make their decisions before doing their outreach," said McKeel, who does not have a position on the suitability of the project itself.
Brian Rolen, who lives on Cottrell Road in rural Multnomah County, is a vocal member of the Leathers family's online forum.
"It's befuddling to me that (the bureau is) choosing the path they are" about not only the location of the plant, but how the bureau is notifying (or not) residents of the project area, he said. "It sounds like Portland Water Bureau wants to build this no matter what. Their mind is made up to try to do what they're going to do, and my mind's made up to try and stop them."
Crossing county lines
Bull Run serves more than 950,000 customers in the Portland metropolitan region. Throughout the fall, winter and spring seasons, Sandy receives about half of its water supply from the stream. The only Sandy customers who don't are located south of Highway 26 and east of Langensand Road and customers north of Highway 26 east of Vista Loop Drive's west end.
The Oregon Health Authority is requiring the bureau to treat Bull Run water to remove or kill cryptosporidium, so Portland City Council agreed to build a plant that will filter the water through a granular media that will also remove other contaminants. The cost of the plant is estimated at between $350 million and $500 million.
The Portland Water Bureau bought the property in 1975 for the future location of a bureau facility. One of the two tax lots was purchased for $65,000 and the other for $250,000.
At an information session the bureau hosted at Multnomah County Grange on June 24, water bureau Program Director David Peters gave a 30-minute presentation on the project before opening the floor for individuals to question the dozen or so bureau staff members and project participants on hand.
Brian Rolen, like several others of the Boring community, described the bureau's event style as "divide and conquer." Many attendees left or voiced their opinions in protest of not being able to ask questions as a group.
"I don't think they're bad people," community member Pat Meyer said at the meeting. "I just think they have a job to do and I don't think it's all listening to what's important to us."
Bureau Public Information Officer Jaymee Cuti addressed concerns about the meeting with a Pamplin Media Group reporter.
"We understand and appreciate the feedback related to confusion about the format of the meeting," she said. "It was not intended to be a town hall type of format as it seems some had hoped for; rather it was an info session and was structured as such so that we could receive questions and comments from a variety of different perspectives knowing that a large crowd would attend ... We wanted to expand opportunities for everyone in attendance to submit questions in a variety of ways.
"By using a town hall-type of format," Cuti added, "we would not have received the depth and number of thoughtful questions that we did by the end of the evening. We thank everyone who attended for their time, thoughtfulness and range of feedback."
Portland resident Emily Bartha also attended the June 24 meeting and felt similarly left in the dark. Bartha has a unique dual perspective on the plant controversy. She now lives in Portland but was raised in Boring right down the road from the proposed plant site.
"We were all sort of blindsided," she said. "We showed up thinking we'd get answers. I've never seen a public meeting go that way. I feel like it's almost an urban/rural divide issue. They didn't think (the residents) would fight back."
Rolen said when he confronted bureau representatives about not receiving notice of the planned project until after council approved its location, they said they only had to notify people within 700 feet of the property.
That struck a nerve.
"I measured it, and I live 867 feet from the proposed site," he explained, adding that being still a close neighbor of the bureau land creates concern.
Bartha too bemoaned a lack of notice for residents, saying that only four neighbors of the plant were told about the council meeting before the site was chosen.
"Maybe in Portland you don't have to give that much notice, but in the country, 750 feet is nothing," she noted.
Rolen isn't a customer of Portland Water Bureau, so his water costs may not be affected, he noted, but his quality of life would.
"We live out here because we don't want to live in Portland. We don't want the city life. And now they build a 100-acre facility in my backyard that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he said. "If this goes through and they build the plant, we're selling and moving. I don't want to go anywhere, (but) I don't want to live next door to that."
He worries that one of many ways the plant will negatively affect him is by diminishing his land value.
"I own 10 acres and the county won't let me develop my property, but they'll let Portland Water Bureau develop this plant," he noted. "How can they build an industrial site on their land and I can't even build a bigger shop? There's zero reason to build there. The plant needs to be at headwaters. There's no neighbors, no problems there."
Rolen has sought legal representation to aid him in fighting the water bureau's plans.
"I've got too much of a vested interest not to have an attorney," Rolen said.
Brent Webster, a Portland Water Bureau customer who lives on the Clackamas County side of Cottrell Road, is concerned about the validity of a new filtration plant. He worries that the plant will change the quality of the water.
"It's a miraculous thing that we have the water we have now," Webster said. "So why would you want to possibly screw it up?"
Like Webster, Bartha also has questions about what "chemicals they'll be using and how they'll be disposed of."
"Safety of both the public and Portland Water Bureau staff is always a top priority, and our staff holds daily safety briefings to ensure this commitment that underlines all of our work," Cuti noted. "It's also highly regulated. The filtration plant will meet rigorous state and federal safety standards for chemical storage and transportation that are designed to protect workers and the public.
"For chemicals stored on site, regulations and safeguards such as required secondary containment will be used," she added, explaining that secondary containment means a basin around a storage tank would capture chemicals in the event of a leak. "The chemicals being evaluated are in common use at water treatment plants across the United States. Decisions on all chemicals will be made during the design phase."
Materials handling safety is of paramount concern for the water bureau, she noted.
"Those transporting and working with chemicals undergo training and follow strict safety protocols (that) will continue to be used, monitored, and regulated."
Water bills and traffic
Other options, potentially with a smaller footprint, might also mean smaller impact on customers' water bills.
Brent Webster, who receives his water from Bull Run, would feel the cost difference caused by the new plant. He speculates that increase per month could be around $100-$200.
He's even wondered if the new plant plan might even be a "gimmick to charge more for water." However, like other residents, he feels he hasn't been able to get a straight answer from the bureau to his questions.
Jaymee Cuti with the water bureau said a lot of this perception comes from the project's highly preliminary status.
When asked about the potential impact on traffic in the Boring area — a concern of Emily Bartha's parents, who still live across Dodge Park Road near the site — Cuti said "once the plant is fully operating in eight years, there will be some increase in traffic related to the plant, but it's important to recognize that we already have traffic using community roads to access the Bull Run Watershed. Many in the community are likely familiar with our Lusted Hill and Sandy River Station facilities, and many in the community likely are not impacted — or do not notice — the trips required by the crews from these facilities to maintain the watershed and infrastructure supporting nearly a million people."
However, she added "it is too soon to identify how many truck trips there will be because we have not designed the facility or finalized any type of operation just yet ... early planning estimates have a wide range of 400 to 700 trips per year, or on average one to two trips per day," she said.
Cuti emphasized that public input remains an important part of the process. On July 16, the bureau hosted a "BBQ&A" at Dodge Park near the plant site to continue addressing community members' questions. This is the latest in a series of outreach efforts by the bureau that started in January 2018 (see sidebar).
"(We) worked to make our next meeting a more informal one, where we turn the PowerPoint presentations off and focus on building relationships and learning more about the feedback we heard on June 24," Cuti said, referring to a recent information and outreach forum.
"As we've mentioned in a variety of materials and through the timelines and processes that we've presented, neighbor input is critical to every stage of this project's lifespan," she added, "and neighbors will have a voice in design and construction decisions."
Haul routes, hours of operation and the look and community character of the facility are among the issues for which the bureau will invite public input.
"The Water Bureau will seek input and work with site neighbors through a more formalized Good Neighbor Plan process, which will work to create a committee of sorts, to help identify design considerations that respect the rural nature of the site," Cuti said. "We will continue sharing information and having conversations with neighbors as the design develops, and we've provided a variety of online ways that the public can comment on both design ideas and a variety of other issues."
For more information about the proposed plant, visit www.portlandoregon.gov/water/article/736366.
Here are some of the steps the Portland Water Bureau has taken to inform community members about its proposed water filtration plant:
- January 2018: Initial letter/notice sent to adjacent neighbors informing them that a process was underway
- August 2018: City Council work session on filtration and treatment projects. Bureau staff worked with media to expand the reach of the message; website created to post materials related to the project; links sent out to neighbors.
- October 2018: Newsletter mailer, timeline, and invitation to attend November community forum sent to 14 adjacent neighbors to site.
- November 2018: Community forum hosted by Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz, water bureau staff and community partners. Residents' email addresses collected. Information session hosted to dive deeper into details with neighbors at Surface Nursery.
- December 12, 2018: Water bureau staff present to the Portland City Council, which decides to locate the plant at city-owned property in that area. Emails sent to neighbors who provide addresses.
- January-April 2019: Individual visits with Surface Nursery and other neighbors to learn concerns; public opinion research and focus groups take place; two mailers, with follow-up postcards sent to range of neighbors, reminding them about timeline and project details
- March 26, 2019: Info session hosted at Sandy River Station site for neighbors
- June 2019: annual Water Quality Report sent to 200,000 households providing information; info session held for those neighbors not immediately adjacent to the site. FAQs posted on website.
- July 8, 2019: Neighbor questions packaged into FAQ posted to bureau's website; 4-plus hour BBQ&A at Dodge Park
- August follow-up outreach meeting being planned.
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