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The city's Bureau of Environmental Services has begun a sanitation program designed for those living in their rigs.

PHOTO - Portland Bureau of Environmental Services crews collect wastewater from a recreational vehicle as part of a new pilot pump-out program. Portland will try to prevent human waste from flowing into city streets and drains by providing recreational vehicle dwellers with pump-out sanitation services — for free.

The city's Bureau of Environmental Services launched the new pilot program Friday, March 19, citing a recent increase in reports of illegal disposal.

"Our approach is that pollution prevention is a better option than environmental cleanup," said BES spokeswoman Diane Dulken.

The test run will last until June at a cost of $10,000, with the money coming from the bureau's Spill Response team's budget, and ultimately the sewer and stormwater bills that provide the majority of the agency's funding.

The project — modeled after a similar RV Wastewater Pilot program started by Seattle Public Utilities last year — was first proposed by staff and won enthusiastic support from BES Commissioner Mingus Mapps.

"Pollution prevention is always preferable to cleanup," Mapps said. "I am proud of Environmental Services for stepping up to a growing need and providing services in a respectful, dignified way for our houseless community as well as protecting our rivers and waterways from human waste."

The bureau initially expected the pump program would service up to 20 vehicles per day and collect about 7,500 gallons of wastewater from sinks and toilets, but now estimates that number at just 2,000 gallons. Existing crews within the bureau will establish a regular rotation of routes for servicing RVs on Fridays, based on field reports from other staff, and will be available as needed during other days of the week, according to a news release.

Crews also will make minor repairs on RVs as necessary to ensure the pump-outs happen without spilling a drop.

"Our houseless neighbors are among our most vulnerable community members," said bureau director Mike Jordan. "As the city creates longer-term housing options, this pilot helps address an immediate sanitation need and benefits our entire community."

In response to questions from Pamplin Media Group, Dulken said BES often hears from the public about leaking fluid, soap suds, motor oil and, just this week, "even a report of a 40-gallon bucket of decomposing apples being poured into a storm drain," but doesn't specifically track incidents of human waste being dumped out of RVs.

"We do not have that info broken out at this point, but our team is diving into our database to assemble that data as part of this project," she added.

Living in a recreational vehicle is technically illegal, but the rule has not been enforced since at least 2017. The proposed changes to city code known as the Shelter to House Continuum would legalize adding one RV per home, provided a permanent water, sewer and power connection is provided, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

BES and the city's Water Bureau settled a $10 million lawsuit in 2017 after being accused of misspending ratepayer dollars, but Dulken says such concerns don't apply here.

"Environmental Services has a regulatory obligation to prevent waste discharge to Portland's waterways," she said. "And this pollution prevention obligation is in line with both our mission and charter."


Zane Sparling
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