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Bureau of Environmental Services officials promise to take concerns documented in report seriously.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Construction has begun on new clarifiers at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant where employee morale problems are being addressed.Portland officials are working to address morale problems at the city's critical wastewater treatment plant even as a major expansion project is underway. The response is prompted by an independent study earlier this year that found plant employees do not feel valued by the city.

The problems are not as bad as those at the Portland Police Bureau and the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, where resignations and retirements have created staffing shortages that threaten public safety. But they are bad enough that changes already are taking place at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant in North Portland and more are promised.

The plant is operated by the Bureau of Environmental Services, which manages the city's sewer systems and stormwater management programs. It treats all solid waste and much of the stormwater collected by the sewer system before being discharged into the Columbia River.

Bureau officials says the operation of the plant is not at risk.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A worker repaints caution marks above a stairwell at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant in North Portland as part of a renewed focus on safety.
The problems were uncovered by the Stantec consulting firm that is overseeing a $500 million expansion at the plant. According to the bureau, after the Secondary Treatment Expansion Program project started in early 2020, contracted construction workers began hearing complaints about the management of the plant from employees working there. They called them to the attention of those supervising the project, who alerted high-ranking bureau officials.

The bureau responded by contracting with Stantec to investigate and report on the problems. The result was a lengthy Operations & Maintenance Needs Assessment Review that was completed on Jan. 25, 2022. Based on confidential interviews with 25 of the approximately 200 bureau workers at the plant, it documented a litany of complaints and concerns, including a perceived lack of attention to workplace safety, security, equity and maintenance.

"The main conclusion reached from the interviews was that the morale of (Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant) staff is low and has been declining for years. Though COVID-19 has been a factor most recently, this deterioration in morale has been occurring well before the pandemic, and, according to some, began a decade ago," reads the review, which said many employees do not feel valued by management and have become apathetic.

The report recommended both short- and long-term changes at the plant, including a renewed focus on safety and security.

The report was taken seriously by the bureau. Director Michael Jordan responded on Feb. 28 with a memo signed by a 12-member management team that accepted all of the findings in the review and promised both quick and long-range responses. Both were distributed throughout the bureau as part of Jordan's promise to be transparent.

"The Bureau Leadership Team … is deeply troubled by the serious issues brought forth in the O&M Needs Assessment Report. We take responsibility and apologize for allowing these problems to develop and continue under our leadership. We are committed to creating a safe, positive, equitable work environment for all BES team members and to providing high quality service to our community," the memo read.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aeration basins bubble at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant in North Portland where employee morale problems are being addressed. Some changes already were evident during a recent visit to the plant. The bureau has s contract with a new private security firm to check the credentials of everyone entering it. And workers are busy improving such basic safety systems as refreshing the yellow paint around stairwell entrenches.

Behind the scenes, the bureau is creating a new safety team that will include several employees from its existing Risk Services team, along with three new hires. The bureau also is hiring a chief safety officer, an operations and maintenance safety manager, and a field and construction safety manager. The new team will report to Jordan.

The plant is closely regulated by federal and state authorities. When the bureau completed the Big Pipe Project in 2011 to eliminate nearly all combined sewer overflows, the city signed an agreement with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality regarding treatment of the increase of wastewater now going to the plant during heavy rains.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Project manager Muriel Gueissaz-Teufel talks about the construction of new clarifiers at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant where workers discovered employeee morale problems.

The Secondary Treatment Expansion Program is the final obligation in that agreement. It is the largest improvement project at the plant since the 1970s. According to the bureau, the program is intended to increase the plant's resiliency, protect water quality and provide healthier work environments for essential workers. Contractors have been deconstructing facilities and preparing the property for major construction for months.

The two main features of the project are two new clarifiers that will increase the plant's secondary treatment capacity and new solids-processing facilities to replace old assets and increase capacity to the year 2045. Clarifiers are large tanks in which aerated wastewater slows down and solids from this process separate from the water. Large tanks are essential to provide enough space to clarify the water before it goes to final disinfection.

To make room for the new clarifiers, several aging work areas will come down and some storage facilities nearby will be renovated. A new multi-use building will be constructed to house staff, shops, and increase storage space. There also will be a new large, three-walled, sheltered storage space in this area. All of those address issues raised in the needs assessment report.

More information about the Secondary Treatment Expansion Program can be found here.


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