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Willamette River Complaint Settled

A mixing zone is a spot where pollution enters into a river, and it’s legal for it to be there. These mixing zones exist throughout the Willamette River, and last fall, Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper found himself floating over a dark, murky patch of water in the Willamette near Halsey. That murky water has led to a settlement between Cascade Pacific Pulp and Willamette Riverkeeper. However, the question over whether Cascade should have to post a sign letting river-users know about its mixing zone will be decided by a federal magistrate judge in Eugene.

Williams discovered the smelly patch of dark water was the mixing zone for two pulp mills, Cascade Pacific Pulp and Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products. Williams and attorney Doug Quirke of Eugene’s Oregon Clean Water Action Project (OCWAP) thought that the dark effluent was in violation of the Cascade’s permit to pollute and filed an intent to sue. Water quality standards do not have to be met in a mixing zone, but when the effluent hits the end of the mixing zone, the water is then supposed to meet criteria for fish and drinking water.

Williams says that the settlement won’t change what is being discharged by the industry into the river, but that the legal battle spurred permitting and work by Cascade to create a river channel that will not only provide native species habitat but also increase the flow of water and depth over the site of the infuser that discharges into the water. 

He says that “99 percent of the time the facts are on our side” in Clean Water Act cases, and the group settles most cases by having penalty money paid toward efforts to restore the river. In this case, in addition to fixing the problems with a gravel bar that led to the appearance of the murky patch of water, Cascade will contribute $10,000 to the McKenzie River Trust for purchase, enhancement or maintenance of lands associated with its Green Island project near Coburg.

Judge Thomas Coffin will decide if Cascade must post a sign marking where its discharge enters the river. Willamette Riverkeeper introduced a bill to the Oregon Legislature this session asking that permitted discharges have signs posted with contact information for fishermen, rafters and others on the river who have questions about what is entering the water. “We’re not trying to create a problem,” Williams says, but simply increasing communication between river users and industry. Coffin will issue a decision 30 days after the close of the legislative session. Williams says he doesn’t think the bill will be a success this time around, but that the states of Tennessee and New York both already have signs marking discharges into their rivers.