Lawsuit Threatened Againstby CBB Staff
Despite repeated warnings from state regulators to clean up discharges into the Willamette River, the business that operates Portland's largest shipyard continues to discharge amounts of zinc and suspended solids beyond that allowed by the federal Clean Water Act, says the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, which this week gave Cascade General a 60-notice that it intends to sue the company for non-compliance.
Cascade General owns and operates the 60-acre Portland Shipyard, which is located on Swan Island in the heart of the city's polluted Portland Harbor, now an Environmental Protection Agency SuperFund site. NEDC's Executive Director Mark Riskedahl said the company has ignored repeated warnings from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to clean up its discharges, but has failed to act. Riskedahl had calculated that penalties for this failure could be as much as $15.9 million if DEQ chose to act on all violations.
"It is troubling to see companies still making economic decisions to pollute our nation's waters 30 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act", said Riskedahl. "Cascade General's behavior is particularly egregious given the millions of dollars being spent to clean up the lower Willamette River."
He accused Cascade General of continuing to violate allowed levels of discharges of zinc and other heavy metals, as well as suspended solids, into the Willamette River. Zinc, he said, bioaccumulates and can potentially be harmful to fish and other organisms in the river.
Bob Baumgartner of DEQ's Northwest Region office in Portland said the agency has sent two letters of non-compliance to Cascade General, but both were informal actions notifying the company of violations. Circulating within the agency this week is a letter notifying Cascade General of a formal enforcement action. Boiled down to its essence, the letter, which has yet to be delivered to the company, notifies the company that continued violations would likely result in civil penalties or other actions DEQ might take to ensure cleanup. Baumgartner said DEQ has notified the company of the impending action by phone.
Pollution from the shipyard that reaches the river through stormwater runoff comes from the normal business in the yard, as well as from legacy pollutant sources, said Baumgartner.
Riskedahl discovered the violations by reviewing DEQ records since 1999. In that process, he discovered one letter from the company from 1999 promising action, but Riskedahl contends cleanup did not occur. Violations at the site have continued until as recently as last month, he said.
Baumgartner confirmed that letter and said if Cascade General hasn't implemented cleanup as a result, it could influence the agency's decision about penalties. Penalties, he said, will come out of DEQ's enforcement action process and will be based on the number of infractions identified, responsiveness to violations and the magnitude of the violation (whether violations are "causing acute conditions").
Both Baumgartner and Riskedahl blamed budget constraints and underfunding of DEQ's enforcement department for the lapse in enforcement.
"I'm not beating up on DEQ," Riskedahl said. "If they had the funds to track this, this would not have happened. They would have brought these guys into compliance. But, the legislature has consistently not provided enough dollars for enforcement. In fact, the legislature may not want that to happen."
Riskedahl said he would drop the lawsuit if DEQ levied the nearly $16 million in fines against Cascade General, "but they are not going to do that," he added.
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality: www.deq.state.or.us
Northwest Environmental Defense Center: www.lclark.edu/~nedc
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