Retired DEQ director: Willamette River 'ugly mess' largely fixed
I grew up on the banks of the West Linn side of the Willamette River. Our family was a member of a dock partnership, and as such, had our boat moored there. We caught many salmon from our boat at various nearby locations and by casting from the dock itself.
Upon reflection, it was amazing that the salmon even survived to be caught, because the pollution from West Linn and Oregon City mills was astounding by today's standards. Rafts of pulp and other waste floated on the river surface. A slime that fed on the sugars in the pulp mill wastes, clogged our fishing lines to such an extent that you had to reel up your fishing lines and periodically skim off the slime. The slimes also coated our boats at or near the waterline, and the boats had to be cleaned off when on land. All, an ugly mess.
And beyond that, the pulp mill fiber settled on the bottom of the river and produced gas bubbles, which we could see on the surface. It was probably methane from anaerobic decomposition.
But, for kids, there was a positive side. When the river levels dropped and summer came, the pulp waste hardened into a 1-to-2-inch-thick solid sheets that we could peel up from the rocks. We peeled up this pulp into 1-to-2-foot segments that we made into forts. Then we used additional segments to throw at each other with the aim of hitting our opponents. It was fun, but in retrospect, disgusting.
Paper and pulp-making companies that used a process that employed acidic solutions for cooking wood chips (also known as sulfite pulping) faced the largest cleanup expenses during the 1960s. Unlike Kraft pulping, cooking chemicals in the waste liquid from wood-cooking "digesters" of most sulfite processes (including those used by Publisher's Paper Company and Crown Zellerbach) are not recoverable. The liquid remaining after digesting wood was a waste product that created enormous loads of biological oxygen demand in receiving waters, resulting in oxygen-depleting impacts that threatened fish and wildlife. We often saw fish gasping for air, especially in Portland. Then when the fish reached Willamette Falls, they had a chance to breathe again because of its natural aeration.
Thanks to former Gov. Tom McCall, and the cooperation of the pulp and paper industry, this all ended, and the Willamette River was cleaned up. When Publishers and Crown Zellerbach paper mills made their commitments to improving the environment, all of us in the region breathed a sigh of relief. What a difference the newly formed Oregon Department of Environmental Quality made by working with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife with the objective of cleaning up the Willamette River to restore the salmon fisheries.
The river was cleaned up. But today the fishery is suffering badly. Why? That is another story.
West Linn resident John Borden is a retired regional director for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
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