The fate of the Portland Water Bureau filtration plant being planned to remove contaminants from the Bull Run Reservoir is suddenly looking shaky.
Two of the four City Council members — Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardest — recently said they did not support the project. It is to be built near Boring and is estimated at $820 million.
None of the major candidates running to fill the current vacancy on the council at the May 19 primary election back it, either. All of them told the Portland Tribune editorial board they need more time to study the project during two joint interviews last week.
The council is not scheduled to formally move the project forward this year. But if it were, such a measure could fail on a 2-2 or even a 2-3 vote.
"I can't give you a yes or no answer on that. I need to do more information and I need to talk to the neighbors," said former Commissioner Loretta Smith, who is running to fill the term of the late Commissioner Nick Fish, referring to residents in the largely rural region of the county.
Other candidates who gave similar answers were Margot Black, Tera Hurst, Dan Ryan and Sam Chase, who added that he opposed the filtration plant while previously working for Fish at City Hall.
The situation could be worse for the plant next year. The two supporters on the council are Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is up for re-election, and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is retiring at the end of the year.
Portland's City Council authorized the filtration plant in August 2017. It is still being planned and the final design and cost estimates have not been approved.
The funding issue emerged during the past two weeks when the council considered authorizing $745 million in revenue bonds for the project and a $20 million Corrosion Control Facility to reduce lead entering drinking water from homes and buildings plumbed between 1970 and 1985. The bonds are necessary to qualify the projects for low-interest federal financing that will save the city $350 million in debt payments after the completion of the projects.
All four council members authorized the bonds on Wednesday, April 15. But before the vote, both Eudaly and Hardesty said they were not yet committed to the project.
Hardesty was the most critical, saying she had been hearing from people and businesses concerned they could not afford the water rate increases necessary to finance the plant, especially because of the economic slowdown caused by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardesty also said she was concerned that small cities that buy Bull Run water could develop their own sources, raising Portland rates even more.
"My vote today in no way means I'm on board 100%," Hardesty said at the time.
Eudaly merely said she wanted a briefing on the plant and any alternatives. She said the same thing to the editorial board. The candiates running against said they also need more information, including Sam Adams, Mingus Mapps, and Keith Wilson. All agreed that publcly funded infrastructure project are needed for teh economy to recover, however.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Oregon Health Authority are requiring the city to remove potentially deadly cryptosporidium from Bull Run water. It was estimated to cost $500 million at the time. The council chose it over a plant that would treat the water with UV light estimated at $150 million, based on a 2012 study.
Although the UV plant would meet EPA and OHA requirements, the council chose the filtration plant because it also could remove other contaminants from the water, including silt and ash.
The vote came shortly after the devastating Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge that came uncomfortably close to the Bull Run Watershed, the primary source of water for Portland and much of the rest of the region. It would be built on property in a largely rural area near Boring purchased by the water bureau years ago for such a facility.
Switching to the UV plant at this point would not be without cost, however. The water bureau already has spent nearly three years planning the filtration plant. It has issued a $51 million design contract and acquired an adjacent property with a large house for $800,000.
More construction jobs
The plant is opposed by the ratepayer activists who previously sued Portland for misspending water and sewer funds, and by many residents living near where it would be built. They claim it is not needed, too expensive, and would damage the environment.
They include Lauren Courter, who lives on a blueberry farm next to the site. During the first council hearing, she described the plant as "extensive and unnecessary," and said it was "inappropriate and insensitive" for the council to even consider the bond request while the economy was suffering because of the COVID-19 crisis.
The city estimates construction of the two Bull Run water treatment projects will create 7,500 direct construction jobs. Contracts related to the projects ensure contractors are paying prevailing wages and maximizing opportunities for disadvantaged, minority-owned, women-owned, emerging small businesses, and Service Disabled Veterans Business Enterprise contractors and subcontractors.
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