Cornelius residents worry quarry has contaminated well water
For more than 20 years, Betty Rose has been concerned about the environmental impacts of a rock quarry located across the street from her property in the hilly farmland south of Cornelius.
Rose founded Washington County's Community Participation Organization (CPO) 15 in 1999 to rally other concerned neighbors and appeal the quarry's county land use permit. (The county's CPO program was created to help communities organize and advocate locally.)
The appeal wasn't successful.
After years of worrying that Westside Rock Hayden Quarry, which was permitted to excavate 10 feet above the groundwater table, could contaminate her drinking water well, Rose's worst fears came true this spring.
She found out Westside Rock and another associated company had been blatantly violating environmental permits for years.
In May, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued a company operating at the quarry a more than $611,000 fine for storing and processing industrial solid waste at the site without permits. It was the fourth-largest fine in the agency's history.
Since then, another state agency overseeing the quarry, the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, and Washington County have joined DEQ in taking enforcement actions, issuing their own notices of permit violations, barring certain activities and mandating remediation.
But Rose and her neighbors currently don't know whether their well water is safe to drink, and it's unclear when they will.
State agencies have ordered Westside Rock to submit a plan for performing a groundwater investigation to determine if the illegally stored waste has adversely impacted wells of adjacent properties, among other orders.
It's unknown when that plan will be approved and when tests will be conducted, because the orders do not become final until the company at issue has had a chance to contest the violations. Westside Rock has entered an appeal process to contest enforcement actions.
"Right after the quarry opened, we had a lot of concerns, and after every five-year review (of the county land use permit), we brought up different concerns," Rose said. "But we were always concerned about our water."
Rose and her husband have a small farm, including an Italian plum tree orchard, and they run a food distribution company from their property.
Margaret Jane Harris, who also lives near the quarry and co-chairs CPO 15, says she has long been concerned with the impacts of the quarry, but the recent revelations about the facility being used as an industrial solid waste storage facility have taken those concerns to new levels.
"We are all on wells in this area fed by the aquifer. I mean, this is our drinking water, our children's drinking water," Harris said. "Some of the most fertile farmland in the world is around this quarry. So not only (is the quarry) potentially polluting the water that we drink, brush our teeth with and cook with, but also the incredibly fertile soil."
In May, DEQ fined Columbia Northwest Recycling Inc., a company doing business at the quarry under the name Construction Materials Recycling, for importing and storing about 10,000 tons of glass waste and about 3,000 tons of asphalt shingle waste at the quarry without permits, according to the department's enforcement letter.
Asphalt shingle waste is produced from the demolition of building roofs.
A pile of the asphalt shingle waste currently stands uncovered at the quarry site, open to the elements and vulnerable to being transported by rain runoff, photos taken by DEQ officials during an inspection show. The company has been storing that type of waste at the site since at least 2016, according to DEQ.
Since at least 2017, the company has imported and stored consumer glass waste contaminated with plastics at the site. Glass waste that is contaminated with plastics can't be recycled, and recycling companies often ship it to other entities for disposal, according to DEQ regulators overseeing the enforcement action. DEQ has also identified a location at the quarry where glass waste was being crushed.
Improper storage of such materials can allow harmful chemicals and metals to infiltrate soil and water sources, potentially leading to contamination, according to DEQ.
The quarry has been in the reclamation process for years, according to DOGAMI officials. Reclamation involves filling in a decommissioned quarry with dirt and rocks, allowing it to return to a more natural state.
Regulators have banned the quarry from importing any waste or fill materials.
The Woodburn-based construction company Kerr Contractors owns the quarry property and Columbia Northwest Recycling, according to Kerr Contractors' website.
Blaine Thomas, recycling manager for Kerr Contractors, declined to comment Thursday, Sept. 17, on the alleged violations at the quarry.
Westside Rock also has not responded to multiple attempts to reach company officials for this story.
Kerr Contractors has received contracts from public entities throughout the Portland area, including the Oregon Department of Transportation, Washington County, Hillsboro and the Hillsboro School District. The company's website currently displays several projects in Washington County, including construction on Highway 26 in Hillsboro, the Reed's Crossing housing development and new parking lots at Hillsboro schools.
Dennis Erickson, who lives about half a mile from the quarry, said he was frustrated to see Kerr Contractors advertising its integrity as a company on its website when he learned of the company's involvement.
"The value listed is 'always do the right thing,'" Erickson said.
Some of the waste stored at the quarry has been used to build roads and parking pads at the quarry, said Jeremy Fleming, a solid waste compliance specialist at DEQ.
Fleming addressed a CPO 15 meeting in August, where officials from state agencies and Washington County discussed the violations with residents.
"There might also be some areas that have been buried or (where) the materials have been used as fill," Fleming said.
State agencies have ordered Columbia Northwest Recycling to show DEQ all the locations where the waste has been placed at the quarry. The order is part of another requirement that the company submits to DEQ a plan for properly disposing of the waste.
DOGAMI has also ordered Westside Rock to submit a clean fill plan, which requires the company to determine how to properly fill in the quarry with uncontaminated materials.
Fleming says DEQ and DOGAMI first noticed the quarry was being used as an illegal solid waste site after an inspection in October 2018. Officials inspected the site after receiving a report that wood products had caught on fire.
Months after the DEQ inspection, in March 2019, Columbia Northwest Recycling submitted applications to be able to legally store solid waste. But it asked for state approval without first getting approval from Washington County, prompting DEQ to reject the applications as incomplete.
Stephen Shane, principal planner at the county, told residents during the CPO meeting that the county denied the company permits to be a solid waste facility because the operations "were not part of the original quarry application."
After state agencies realized the quarry was being used to illegally store solid waste, subsequent inspections showed Westside Rock was also not properly managing stormwater runoff at the quarry.
Inspection reports showed water discharged from the quarry recently increased the turbidity — or cloudiness — of the water in a nearby roadside ditch by 4000%.
Lisa Reinhart, a water quality reclamationist at DOGAMI, says Westside Rock was initially issued a permit to manage and discharge stormwater at the site in 2002. As part of the permit, the company was required to collect and submit to regulators four samples of stormwater from two sites each year to determine if the water was meeting pollution standards for water runoff.
Reinhart said the company's most recent report showed the company didn't collect all of the required samples. DOGAMI has issued Westside Rock a penalty of $56,000 for its stormwater issues, Reinhart said.
Additionally, the company has been ordered to update its Stormwater Pollution Control Plan to "accurately reflect conditions at the site," according to DEQ.
Despite the recent enforcement actions, multiple residents who remotely attended the August CPO 15 meeting raised concerns about how long it took for regulators to act.
Shane told residents that county oversight of the quarry largely ended when state agencies started overseeing the reclamation process.
"We're all working together to get this site into compliance," said Reinhart, of DOGAMI. "Most of our violations occur during the mining phase. When sites go into the reclamation phase, they're not watched as closely."
Residents at the meeting also expressed doubt that the companies associated with the quarry, which have allegedly violated laws for years, could be trusted to clean up the site and ensure water isn't being contaminated, as the agencies mandate.
CPO 15 plans to ask regulators to require Westside Rock to pay for testing of residents' wells and to have an independent entity conduct other required water testing, Erickson said.
"It's the least they could do after causing this potential health risk here in this neighborhood," he said.
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