Entities taking corrective actions on the construction site after breaking several Oregon environmental laws.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Willamette Neighborhood Association appealed a plan by the West Linn-Wilsonville School District to build a new Athey Creek Middle School on Dollar Street in West Linn.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is looking into violations by the city of West Linn and West Linn-Wilsonville School District concerning contaminated water running off of the district's construction site on Dollar Street and into the Tualatin River.

After heavy rains in late February, community members contacted DEQ about water spilling into the river from a catch basin near the site of the under-construction Athey Creek Middle School.

"The discharge started on February 28, 2022, and was caused when the erosion and sediment controls at the Athey Creek School construction site located at 945 Dollar Street failed and allowed turbid water and sediment to leave the site," DEQ Stormwater Specialist Ryan Johnson wrote in a notice to the city of West Linn dated March 21.

Department cites city for 11 violations

According to the notice, DEQ found the city to be violating its stormwater permit when it visited the construction site on March 2. DEQ cited 11 violations regarding waste discharge, failure to properly implement a stormwater plan and failing to enforce permit requirements for the school construction.

The West Linn City Attorney's Office responded to DEQ April 27, countering several points made in the notice.

In this response, Maureen Bayer, an attorney from the city's contracted legal firm Jordan Ramis PC, noted that when the heavy rains occurred on Feb. 28, city staff immediately visited the site and discovered the district's construction crew was already taking corrective action to stop the flow of water offsite.

Bayer asked that four of the violations be withdrawn because they fall under the regulation of the city's building permit, not the stormwater plan, as the DEQ notice stated. Bayer also requested the withdrawal of one of the two violations regarding the city's oversight of the building site.

"The Erosion and Sediment Control Plan was approved before issuance of the Permit," Bayer wrote. "The City also inspected the Site during the rain event and required that corrective action be taken. While City staff expressed some confusion about oversight when DEQ called, the substantive requirements were met."

Bayer also noted that West Linn's two stormwater engineers recently left the city, "leaving a gap in the knowledge and understanding of all of the requirements of the (MS4 stormwater) Permit."

As a corrective action, Bayer proposed the city submit inspection documents to DEQ with its annual reports, conduct construction site training for staff and update the city's website to provide more clear instructions on how community members can report non-stormwater spills and discharge.

During a recent meeting of the West Linn City Council, Bayer clarified that the March 21 communication from DEQ was a pre-enforcement notice. She stated the city had not received a violation notice.

"DEQ may decide to take enforcement action based on the violations it had identified, but (the notice) is in and of itself not actionable," Bayer said. "We felt the need to respond to the pre-enforcement notice in order to correct some of those factual inaccuracies and technical inaccuracies so that the city would not be held liable for violations that DEQ perceived but that had not actually occurred."

School district continues to receive citations from DEQ

DEQ has also issued four separate violations to the school district.

On March 3, DEQ sent two pre-enforcement notices to the school district about two Oregon environmental violations due to the turbid water leaving the site and flowing into the Tualatin River, and for not installing a sediment fencing that was approved by the Erosion and Sediment Control Plan.

Both infractions were considered Class I, which are the most serious violations, according to DEQ's letter.

"The violations cited above caused significant environmental harm or posed the risk of significant environmental harm and the matter is being referred to the DEQ's Office of Compliance and Enforcement for formal enforcement action… A formal enforcement action may include a civil penalty assessment for each day of violation," Boris Barrera, a water quality specialist for DEQ, wrote in the letter to the district.

DEQ proposed the district complete nine corrective actions and submit photos for proof. However, district Capital Construction Program Manager Remo Douglas said the bond team was already fixing the situation the day reports were made by citizens. He also said the team had made appropriate reports of the leakage to the city and DEQ.

"By the time (community members) had reported us, we were already fixing the issue. And a number of additional measures were put in place to prevent the similar sort of failure from happening again," Douglas said to the Tidings.

But the bond team experienced several other incidents since the Feb. 28 leak. In March, the district encountered a second failure where water was coming out of the ground and out the side of the hill from the site. The district added additional measures to prevent the water coming out in the way that it did. On April 30, the district experienced the third failure of water coming down the hill.

During those two leaks, the district completed corrective actions that included elevating the current catch basin to catch more water and installing a sump pit, which takes the water coming down the hill and transports it through a pipe system that distributes it into a filtering system pond. The pond slows down the water and the particulate that makes the water muddy sinks to the bottom, according to Douglas. It is then deposited into the nearby river.

A work contractor is also present on site day and night during significant rain events, completing periodic checks of the pumps, generators and ensuring no blockage that prevents water from escaping, according to Douglas.

On May 6, DEQ issued two other Class I violations to the school district via letter.

The district was then issued two corrective actions, one of which was due on May 17. The other is to be completed by June 30. Douglas confirmed that the district has completed the first action and will complete the second by its June deadline.

"We are aware; we're paying attention and responding. We will keep creating a new plan of action to try and prevent (these incidents) from happening again," Douglas said.

West Linn Public Works Director Lance Calvert said that the erosion control measures in place at the Dollar Street construction site met the city's standards and followed best practice. This was the case both before and after the Feb. 28 storm, Calvert clarified. However, he said, the intensity of rain over the spring had overwhelmed those control measures.

City Councilor Mary Baumgardner had a different impression of the erosion control in place. She stated that, until recently, the erosion control at the site was inadequate for even a predictable amount of rain.

The stormwater discharge was a public safety issue that impacted people using Willamette Falls Drive and Fields Bridge Park, West Linn resident Karie Oakes said at a recent City Council meeting. She asked the city to be more transparent with such issues.

"The city does not have a sufficient reporting system and they do not have any records of illicit stormwater reporting by citizens in the last five years, which is highly outside the norm," Oakes said.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!