Air and Water Quality


Sally Hollemon

Three guest panelists spoke on Air and Water Quality in Salem at the All-Member Meeting of February 13, 2007, at the Salem Library. Diana Bodtker moderated the forum, and Deanie Anderson explained how League positions are reached.

Jim Boylan, Senior Air Quality Specialist for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was trained as a meteorologist and has been involved in air quality work since the 1970s when he worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He joined DEQ in Oregon in 1991.

Mr. Boylan said that the national Clean Air Act authorized DEQ to write rules, and they’ve written volumes of them. Oregon law gives our state DEQ the same responsibility subject to federal law. Oregon has a permit program by which industry is inspected and their paperwork audited to ensure that the rules are followed.

Vehicles: While cars run cleaner now, trucks, trains, and other equipment that burn diesel fuel put out black smoke. Trucks are being encouraged by DEQ to use a lower sulfur level diesel, but it’s a voluntary program at this time. There is a federal rule to require cleaner truck engines, but the manufacturers are given several years to comply.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, and poisonous gas produced by incomplete combustion. There have been no violations in Marion County since 1985 due to cleaner cars even though the number of cars has increased, and that decline in CO is expected to continue. A DEQ Fact Sheet on carbon monoxide says:  The highest CO levels are from on-road vehicles (41%) and are typically seen at areas of traffic congestion where running engines are concentrated within a relatively small area. …The second largest amount of annual CO emissions comes from area sources (29%), which are small combustion sources (including woodstoves and fireplaces) located at many fixed points over a wide area. Other sources of CO emissions are non-road motor vehicles (18%) such as lawn and garden equipment, and industrial sources (12%), such as mills and power generation plants. CO dissipates quickly over distance.

The Oregon DEQ is proposing a new rule to allow new or expanding industries and the planning of new transportation projects to be subject to less rigorous requirements [than currently required] but air quality would still be protected. …The revised requirements are consistent with what is required in the Portland area. …CO levels are currently at half the level allowed by the health standard and are predicted to remain low. Emissions would be inventoried every three years, and, if a trend of increasing CO emissions should occur, DEQ would evaluate the causes and take action as needed to protect public health.

There will be an open house on March 26, 6 p.m., at the DEQ office, 750 Front Street, at which more information will be available. A formal public hearing will be held April 16, 7 p.m., at the DEQ office.

Technology for cleaner energy in general is 20-25 years out unless there is a breakthrough, said Mr. Boylan.

Incineration of medical wastes: DEQ categorizes medical waste the same as municipal waste. The Covanta incinerator at Brooks is currently limited to 1500 tons of medical wastes per year, a restriction set by Marion County. Covanta incinerates an average of 1100 tons of medical wastes per year.

The state DEQ enforces stack emission limits for various pollutants. Depending on the pollutant, Covanta emits 1/10 to 1/3 of the allowed standard. The mercury standard has been tightened, and Covanta is below the new limit. The exhaust from Covanta is continuously monitored for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxides, sulfur dioxides, and opacity (particulate matter). Carbon Dioxide is not monitored. Mercury, cadmium, and other metals are tested once a year (federal law). In answer to a question of why any level of a pollutant is acceptable, Mr. Boylan said that temperatures are very high in the burner, and high temperatures destroy the pathogens in the medical wastes.

However, when plastics (of which medical wastes include a lot) are burned, dioxin is formed during the cool-down period after incineration. Only one burner is used for medical wastes, and, when the stack emissions are checked, both burners show the same level of pollutants. In response to a question of if we know whether any medical wastes were being burned during annual emissions tests, Mr. Boylan said he will encourage Covanta to include some medical wastes during the testing in May.

Field burning: The Department of Agriculture monitors field burning, but DEQ has air-quality monitors in the Willamette Valley to ensure that the smoke level is within limits, said Mr. Boylan.

Outdoor burning ban in Salem: There is a proposal to expand Salem’s open burning ban to the Urban Growth Boundary. Officials are discussing the proposal with nearby communities.

Heat Smart Bill: A bill before the current legislature would provide a tax credit to encourage people to trade out old wood-burning stoves for new ones that are cleaner burning.

Mark Hamlin, Water Quality Specialist for DEQ, has a degree in Environmental Toxicology and 25 years’ experience with water quality concerns, including at the municipal level. He has been with DEQ in Oregon for 16 years. He handed out a brochure Strategic Directions, available on the DEQ website at, which summarizes the work of the department.

Willamette River: The Willamette River has gotten cleaner over the past 50 years. When a new problem crops up, said Mr. Hamlin, it’s usually because we’ve started to look for that particular problem. Pollutants in the river are down because surrounding cities have upgraded their water treatment, which Salem is doing at the Willow Creek Treatment Plant. Non-point pollution from farm fields, forests, streets, etc., is the major problem now.

However, the temperature of the water in the river continues to rise primarily because of development in the valley, which has reduced the shade over tributary creeks, so warmer water from the creeks means the river is warmer. Many creeks are on the list of watercourses with problems. Increased population is the basic cause of these problems.

Legislation: There are two water-quality packages before the current legislature. One would monitor storm-water programs to identify problems and the other would provide solutions to the problems identified.

Consumption of fish and water: Criteria have been developed regarding water quality so that consumption of fish and water as well as recreational uses of water (such as swimming) are safe. DEQ uses the most stringent criteria, writes up a plan, and then begins to implement the plan, which may take time. For example, trees planted near streams to provide shade need time to grow. Mr. Hamlin said that DEQ can encourage tree planting, and, if it’s cost effective for the landowner or industry, they will plant.

Pharmaceuticals: Pharmaceuticals and personal care products should not be flushed into a drain as these pollute water.

Mixing zones: Oregon rules prohibit mixing zones in the river that endanger public health. Mixing zones are areas within 100-200 feet of an outflow pipe where treated water from the pipe mixes with the water already in the river to dilute the treated water to a required level. However, Mr. Hamlin said the treated water is safe to swim in even before it is diluted in the river.

Soil erosion: DEQ has no authority over agricultural practices (Soil Conservation Districts do) or other non-point pollution (such as from roads and private yards) or over stream flow (Water Resources Department does). To give DEQ authority would require changing state and federal rules. Mr. Hamlin commented that our soil is naturally high in mercury due to the volcanic source of our rock and soil.

Lisa Milliman, Associate Planner with Marion County for 8 years, deals with water issues, including the challenge of land-use demands on a limited water supply. She has previous experience as a regional land-use planner in Florida and also worked with that state’s DEQ.

Marion County was zoned in 1968, before Oregon standards were set in 1973. The focus was on protecting farmland. Concern over water quality came later and was addressed, along with many other issues, when the county’s comprehensive plan was prepared for state approval. Water quality became an issue in the 1990s due to concern that, in an area with wells, a new development might cause existing wells to go dry. Some wise planners of that time came up with ground water limited area designations on the county map, and small areas were designated where residential development could occur–mostly in the south Salem hills, where water was limited, too. The planners were protecting farmland, said Ms. Milliman.

The Sensitive Groundwater Overlay Zone requires that water use by new development not exceed the replenishing capacity of the ground water. Responsibility is left to local governments to determine whether there is enough water to allow additional residential wells. Oregon’s geology is volcanic; there are faults, sedimentary rock, and complex geology that make it hard to know how much ground water there is in an area, Ms. Milliman added.

Measure 37: It is harder now for people to prove there is adequate water than it was when the population was less, and Measure 37 has made old assumptions invalid where water is limited on land that was expected to remain farmland. In answer to the question, “If development is approved under Measure 37 and future residents run out of water, can people blame the county for not protecting them against themselves?” Ms. Milliman said that there are disclaimers on all the permits which say that the county cannot guarantee that there will be water. Another questioner asked, “If current residents run out of water due to new development, what recourse do they have?” Ms. Milliman said that current residents first have to deepen their wells to the bottom of the aquifer before they can sue. She added that new development isn’t the only reason a well may go dry; wells have to be maintained.

Salem’s water source: Salem has surface water rights to the Santiam River and hasn’t yet exercised the city’s full water rights.

In answer to the question: “How can we get people to adopt behavior to preserve water for coming generations?” Ms. Milliman said that local grasses are adapted to go dormant in summer if not irrigated; they come back in the winter.

Use landscaping plants that need little water or install a gray-water system for irrigation. (Gray water is water that has been used for washing dishes, clothing, etc.; sink and shower drains go to the gray-water system; toilets continue to go to the sewer.) The soap in gray water is okay for plants; grandma used it on her flowers. In general, said Ms. Milliman, people will adopt water conservation practices when they believe there is a water shortage. Also, state laws may encourage waste, such as the requirement that you use your water rights or lose them.


Marge Wright

Upper Bennet Dam on the Santiam River near Stayton was the starting place for the tour of the City of Salem’s Geren Island Water Treatment Facility by a group of League members on May 29, 2007.

At this dam some of the water from the Santiam River is diverted to Salem and Turner for consumer use and irrigation and some to the Santiam Water District and to Mill Creek. A fish ladder helps protect three threatened fish species–the Oregon chub, spring chinook, and winter steelhead–as well as the red-legged frog.

At the intake channel, screens filter out fish, leaves, and other debris.

The League group learned about the elaborate slow sand filtration system whereby water is gathered into large outdoor cells and slowly seeps through

layers of sand and rocks before it goes out through pipes at the bottom of the cells for further treatment.

Chlorine and fluoride are added to Salem’s drinking water, and a soda-ash treatment changes the ph level to help control corrosion of plumbing pipes in some of Salem’s older homes, preventing lead and copper corrosion from going into their tap water.

Salem water is tested for 150 different things before it reaches our homes. This testing is much more stringent than the testing done on bottled water, which is so widely purchased now.

Salem residents use 17 million gallons of water per day in the winter months and 50 million gallons per day during the summer. As Salem grows, the conservation and wise use of our very high quality water supply will become more and more important.

%d bloggers like this: