Officials: Willamette River sewage spill could have been worse
Clackamas Water Environment Services (WES) leaders came before the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, Feb. 18, to clear up exactly what caused the loss of power at the Tri-City Water Resource Recovery Facility and for partially untreated sewage to be discharged into the Willamette River.
WES leaders provided some answers for a conversation County Chair Tootie Smith had Wednesday, Feb. 17, with KXL radio personality Lars Larson, who suggested Smith advocate for firing certain leaders within WES over the incident.
Larson questioned why governmental employees aren't fired following "screw ups" like the events at the Tri-City plant on Sunday, Feb. 14, to which Smith blamed unions.
Larson also pressed Smith for answers regarding why the backup generators at the Tri-City facility failed and why they hadn't stockpiled generator fuel ahead of the storm.
"Well, it makes you wonder, doesn't it," Smith replied. "I don't know what was going on down there, to be honest with you. I really don't know."
Larson criticized Smith for not simply calling WES and demanding answers.
"Do you have the ability to call down there and say, do you have a generator or not? Does it work or not? Did you have fuel or not? And did you, as you knew a couple of days ahead of time that a storm is coming at us, we'll likely be on backup power for part of the time, so let's get some extra fuel down here?" Larson said.
But Larson's framing of the incident and Smith's lack of knowledge provided a few points of misinformation that are now circulating in news stories and on the internet.
To clarify these points, WES Director Greg Geist came before county commissioners to say all of WES's generators worked properly and they never ran out of fuel. Geist said that WES started the storm with 5,000 gallons of fuel on site at the Tri-City facility and ended with 4,600 in store after staff was able to procure more through Pacific Pride and Carson Oil through an emergency contract.
The real problem, according to Geist, was that the facility's two independent electrical feeds from the local grid both gave out — both the Abernethy and Jennings Lodge legs of power. Geist said that backup power generation was able to account for 75% of capacity at the facility. WES subsequently brought in another generator to make up for the other 25%, and that generator remains on site.
"We're confident that it is going to be stable, so if something does go wrong, now we would have 100% backup power on site," he said.
According to Geist, losing both feeds of power isn't something the facility was designed to handle and is a situation that wasn't foreseeable until this storm which Portland General Electric (PGE) is calling a "40-year event."
"We didn't have triple redundancy," Geist said. "We had to scramble and bring in outside power generation to cover that the same way that you would have to do for a building or any other kind of facility. This was a catastrophic, hopefully, once-in-a-lifetime event. We could have the conversation about whether the entire facility should have triple redundancy, but it would be very expensive for something you would use hopefully never."
Geist said that WES did initially contact PGE to help secure backup fuel for its generators, but found PGE had limited capacity to help provide that fuel. Instead, staff began shuttling fuel from the Pacific Pride across the freeway and immediately put in an order with Carson Oil for a shipment.
"We're not going to rely on somebody else. We're going to make sure that we can get fuel there, and that's what we did," Geist said.
Commissioners commended the quick action of WES staff in being able to pivot and prevent what could have been a much larger spill than what took place Sunday. According to Geist, WES won't know the full extent of the spill and its impact on the local watershed until test results come back in a few days. He said that while he was unsure what the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's response might look like, he'd be surprised if there was any regulatory action. Geist also confirmed that WES has been in constant contact with DEQ and has taken all measures to mitigate human contact with the Clackamas River in that area, as well as the Willamette River near Clackamette Park in Oregon City.
"I just wanted to give a heartfelt thanks to Greg and everyone that works at WES," said County Commissioner Martha Schrader. "I want to commend them for their around-the-clock work to make sure things went right. I have since found out they really got no rest and were on it for hours at a time. They're heroes we should recognize."
Geist agreed, saying that his staff went above and beyond in their duties this weekend and that he's humbled to work with such committed civil servants.
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