This morning, the city of Portland issued a boil water notice for 670,000 customers of the Portland Water Bureau after finding traces of E. Coli in two of Mt. Tabor’s open-air reservoirs. This is significant in light of the city’s controversial move towards covering the reservoirs. Would this E. Coli incident have happened if the city had discontinued its open-air reservoirs over 6 years ago when the federal mandate to do so was issued?

Portland is currently in the process of shutting down the use of the open-air reservoirs on Mt. Tabor and is constructing new covered reservoirs at Powell Butte and Kelly Butte to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The actual rule, called the the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule or LT2, “affects uncovered finished drinking water reservoirs by requiring that water systems either cover the reservoirs or provide treatment at the outlets of the reservoirs to remove or inactivate 99% (2 log) of the Cryptosporidium protozoa, 99.9% (3 log) Giardia bacteria and 99.99% (4 log) of viruses,” according to the City of Portland website. The purpose of this rule is to “reduce disease incidence associated with Cryptosporidium and other disease-causing microorganisms in drinking water”.

Portland has fought LT2 ever since its inception. In 2006, the city appealed the EPA rule in federal court and lost. In 2009, the city sought EPA guidance on how to obtain a variance, and was told no variance was possible. When the EPA later moved regulatory oversight to the Oregon Health Authority, the city again asked for a variance and was turned down. In 2011, the city asked the state if a variance was possible and was told it was not. Later in 2011, the city asked the state to suspend enforcement of the provision until federal regulatory review was completed, and was turned down. And as recently as 2012 and again in 2013, the city asked the state for a delay. The city was turned down each time. Portland has finally agreed to disconnect the uncovered reservoirs from the municipal drinking water system by December 31, 2015 to comply with the EPA’s mandate.

The city fought having to comply with LT2 for all these years citing a “unique water source” that was self-filtering and did not have a trace of the Cryptosporidium protozoa. “The water of the Bull Run Watershed that supplies Portland’s residents with water is naturally caught and filtered.  Recently, extensive testing took place and there was not a single instance of Cryptosporidium detected,” says Kavita Jain-Cocks of State of the Planet. City residents have also been fighting LT2 fearing ever-rising water rates. Residents have put up a fight against LT2 compliance saying it’s ridiculous for the city to undergo a $3.9 million water safety improvement plan when in reality, there is nothing wrong with the safety of their water.

But this E. Coli boil water notice may change the mind of some of residents. Granted, the actual danger of getting sick from this bacteria is “very low” according to Multnomah County health director Dr. Paul Lewis.

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4 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    I wonder if E. Coli contamination could still happen if this was caused by runoff nearby? Open or closed air reservoirs wouldn’t be able to stop that. Right? Do you know the number of people who do get sick annually from the current water system? Is opposition afraid the city will put fluoride in the water? Safe drinking water should be a top priority.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Steve, the drinking water in Portland is safe! The LT2 discussion is primarily about compliance with a federal mandate. There was opposition in Portland about complying with this because its water supply from the Bull Run Watershed is considered very safe.

  2. No, the City has not “fought LT2 since its inception.”

    That phrase, as well as about 90% of the above blog post, is lifted verbatim from the Mayor’s self-serving 2013 press release.

    The truth is that engineering interests (and campaign donors) like MWH and CH2M Hill have been working with City Hall behind the scenes for years to bend drinking water regulations, and our rate dollars, toward their self interest.

    The LT2 cover-or-treat mandate was a pro-industry rule, adopted under lobbying pressure from Portland contractors and Water Bureau administrators, without any scientific evidence of danger from open reservoirs.

    Because there is none.

    Open reservoirs have never been attributed to a single major health incident in this country, while underground systems have been associated with high radon levels and Salmonella deaths.

    The LT2 regulation is currently under heavy fire for its unscientific basis, causing the EPA to back off reservoir coverage requirements for other open-reservoir cities like Rochester and NYC.

    The only reason Portland does not enjoy that same relief from onerous billion-dollar reservoir burial contracts is that the special interests in our City Hall also wield heavy influence at the state level, and did a fair amount of tinkering with Oregon’s administrative rules when our state was deputized as the feds’ “primacy agent” for enforcing LT2 in 2007.

    The only connection between open reservoirs and this boil-water notice is a political one: The self-serving need for a corrupt municipal government to retroactively justify over a decade of wasteful spending on a project that has enriched their friends while providing no public health benefit. A project whose underground replacement tank, after ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars, still dumps chlorine into Johnson Creek and can’t hold water.

    If there was ANY likelihood of E. coli (and that’s a “big if,” considering that Portland Water Bureau encourages PR-serving false positives via sub-protocol gloveless sampling), the source was most likely pressure fluctuation due to the hundreds of thousands of gallons of City water being flushed into Powell Butte daily so that divers can keep up with the myriad cracks they’re trying to patch.

    It’s bad enough that our public safety and historic landmarks are at the mercy of a corrupt municipal government and its crony contractors.

    Its worse still when our local blogosphere attempts to pass off City Hall’s lamest PR as “journalism.”

    Effective today, I recommend boiling all local media coverage before reading it.

  3. Microbiologist Scott Fernandez recently told me that E. coli and other microorganisms are actually more likely in *covered* reservoirs because they are only cleaned every 5+ years as opposed to our open reservoirs which are cleaned every 6 months. You may have seen Scott on KOIN6 TV. He was formerly a member of the Portland Utility Review and Water Quality Advisory Board and also testified at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC.

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