DEQ’s Jean-Karlo Lemus takes us on brief environmental tour of his homeland in Puerto Rico

My name is Jean-Karlo Lemus, and I’m fairly new to Oregon. I’ve spent time in Pennsylvania and Georgia, but I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The trek from the Caribbean to the Pacific Northwest has been a… transition to say the least.

Oregon’s forests and mountains are not unlike the forests and mountains of my native municipality, Arecibo. Just more coniferous instead of tropical. People ask me all the time, “What do you miss about home?” I would definitely have to say Puerto Rico’s geology.

One of the first things that comes to mind when it comes to Puerto Rico’s natural resources are its beaches, but Puerto Rico has other treasures that lay further inland. Within eyeshot of the shores are Puerto Rico’s central mountain ranges: miles and miles of rainforest peppered with misty mountains. Even as you approach the shoreline, the terrain in the north never fully flattens, and hills pepper the horizon. In Spanish, these hills are called “mogotes.” In English, we call them “karsts”.

I can’t tell you what Puerto Rico’s sediment is like—I was a paleontology-kid, not a geology-kid. But I think the clay up in the mountains is, well, clay? And burrowing into the taller mountains reveals a wealth of tiny fossilized shells and quartz crystals, sometimes hunks of the stuff the size of a grapefruit. Karsts, I am told, are limestone formations peeled away, revealing the stone within. It’s like someone cutting into a beef wellington, only instead of crust and beef it’s green with stone layers.

Karsts are natural geological developments, caused by tremors and landslides. As the quakes of December 2019 showed, Puerto Rico is on a fault zone. But they can also be man-made. The northern karst range is a mixture of both. When Route 22 was being constructed to facilitate transit towards San Juan in the East, the easiest path to take was straight through the northern karsts, which were blasted to make way for the roads. As you drive along, you’ll notice that the exposed sections of the karsts are steepled from this construction work.

The range stretches several miles, extending past the greater Arecibo area and further eastward towards Manati. They pepper the roadsides along with hills and farmland, until the central forest turns to cities.

Besides being really pretty, the karsts are an important part of Puerto Rico’s environment. Foliage still grows on them, making them home to smaller mammals or birds. Their presence also helps regulate the weather, to an extent, facilitating rainfall and regulating temperatures in the local area. They also help buffer some of the winds that come in from the shore.

Their biggest threat, sadly, is housing. Puerto Rico’s population is just under three million, and the need for affordable housing never quite ends. The quickest solution many go for is gated housing, creating large neighborhoods of homes. Unfortunately, these take up a lot of space, which is at a premium in the island. Too close to the shoreline, and you risk damages from hurricanes and flooding. But too far inland and you have to contend with the tricky terrain and faulty infrastructure of the central rural areas. The south of the island presents the difficulty of being farther from the northern ports and traveling through mountains, so the only available space for gated neighborhoods is in the vicinity of karsts. The good news is, recent efforts have protected Puerto Rico’s geological formations. The bad news is, it’s still an uphill battle to preserve them.

Between Puerto Rico’s rapid industrialization in the 1950s and other outside influences, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure isn’t the most forward-thinking. It’s mostly been in recent years that greater efforts have been taken to preserve our karst ranges and to establish nature preserves in the northern coast. I can say that seeing our natural formations bulldozed isn’t something I miss about Puerto Rico. Oregon’s efforts in preserving its forests are a hard-fought victory, and I’m glad they exist. It’s the kind of thing I wish we had more of back home.

— Jean-Karlo Lemus, a native of Puerto Rico, started work in March 2020 at Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as a receptionist at DEQ headquarters. He enjoys writing about cartoons when he’s not at work.

DEQ Lab releases groundwater quality report for Oregon’s Walla Walla Basin

A new report from DEQ’s Laboratory shows water quality data for groundwater aquifers in the Walla Walla River Basin in Oregon.

The basin straddles northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. DEQ sampled water from 100 residential and agricultural wells on the Oregon side and detected 41 different chemicals in the water, including pesticides, metals, nutrients and bacteria. Some of these chemicals, such as low levels of minerals, naturally exist within water, and others are contaminants.

Most contaminants detected in this study were at levels below EPA drinking water standards, but nitrates, lead and bacteria exceeded health standards in some wells.

DEQ shared individual water quality results with the well owners where the agency took samples, along with educational materials about EPA drinking water standards and well maintenance. Groundwater contaminants in drinking water wells could indicate that wells need repair or that there are nearby sources of contamination, such as failing septic systems or pesticides, fertilizers, manure or household chemicals applied to the land.

Oregon does not have water quality regulations for private wells. Homeowners are responsible for maintaining their wells and ensuring the water is safe to drink. Oregon only requires that domestic wells are tested for nitrate, arsenic and bacteria during real estate transactions.

“Many people rely on groundwater for domestic, industrial and agricultural reasons. We want to get a baseline understanding of the quality of Oregon’s aquifers, and hopefully going forward get trending data to understand how those aquifers may change over time,” said Paige Haxton-Evans, DEQ statewide groundwater quality monitoring coordinator and report author.

Well users can find more information about groundwater contaminants and about maintaining healthy wells and drinking water by visiting the Oregon Health Authority’s Domestic Well Safety Program webpage.

This is the third geographic area DEQ has studied as part of its Statewide Groundwater Quality Monitoring Program, which evaluates the current condition of Oregon’s groundwater.

Read the full Walla Walla Basin 2020 Groundwater Quality report.

– Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist

EPA’s soot decision is bad for your health

Ali Mirzakhalili, DEQ Air Quality Program Administrator

By Ali Mirzakhalili

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced the agency’s plan to preserve their weak standards on how much “soot” – or fine particulate matter – can be released into our air. This is a public health failure and the result of ignoring scientific evidence that a stronger standard is needed to prevent more disease and death.

Health impacts associated with high levels of PM2.5 (fine particulates) are documented through thousands of studies, most of which are cited in EPA’s own assessment of current science. Impacts include permanent impaired lung development in children and impaired cardiovascular and lung function in adults and seniors. These impacts are associated with high incidences of asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, nervous system effects, cancer and premature death. Recent studies are finding associations of ambient air pollution and fine particulate air pollution with adverse birth outcomes such as still births and low birth weights, diabetes, and impaired neurodevelopment and cognitive function.

A study published in August 2018 in Environmental Health Perspectives reviewed the extensive environmental health literature and found a significant association of local air pollution with daily deaths in 135 U.S. cities, including Portland. For PM2.5, the study found that for every incremental increase in pollution concentration there was a corresponding and measurable increase in daily deaths, even on days with fine particle levels well below the existing standard. Increased COVID-19 related mortality and morbidity also has been associated with increased particulate matter pollution concentration.

EPA arrived at its final decision by ignoring the latest science and comments from many public health and environmental agencies, including those submitted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority. The federal Clean Air Act requires that EPA set the soot standard at a level necessary to protect public health and allow an adequate margin of safety. Retaining the current standards fails to deliver that objective.

So why did EPA choose this path when the agency’s mission is to improve air quality? One cynical possibility is that tightening the soot standard could make the agency look bad. One way EPA measures success is to count the number of non-attainment areas in the country – those are the areas that fail to meet air quality standards. When standards are strengthened, more areas fall out of attainment. But the real measure of success should be improving air quality. Policy shouldn’t be dictated by the potential for bad optics, but instead should be guided by science and the public interest.

This decision will likely face legal challenges and we urge the incoming administration to reconsider this decision and return EPA to real environmental protections that are supported by science and protect our air and our health.

Ali Mirzakhalili is the administrator of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Program.

DEQ experts to share environmental knowledge and experience

More than a dozen experts with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality are preparing to participate in 13 of 32 sessions on environmental protection, compliance, new technologies, sustainable business practices and trending policy issues Dec. 8-9 during the Business and Environment Conference sponsored by DEQ, Washington Department of Ecology and the Northwest Environmental Business Council.

DEQ staff will bring a wide range of experience to the table to discuss with panelists and attendees during the virtual conference.

To give our readers a sense of the scope of DEQ’s subject matter expertise we’re sharing a little bit about the issues DEQ’s staff and others will tackle starting with an introduction of DEQ’s Director, Richard Whitman (left).

Director Whitman will join Tony Barber, Director of Oregon Operations for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 and Rich Doenges, Southwest Region Director, Washington State Department of Environmental Quality, to kick off the conference during the “Meet the Regulators” session.

Names of Panels and DEQ staff participants

Clean Air Act Permits

Matt Hoffman and Patty Jacobs from DEQ’s Air Quality Division will discuss when an air quality permit is required, how to get it and how to keep it through compliance and other permit elements.

Introduction to Clean Water Act Permits Panel

Jeff Navarro and Geoff Rabinowitz from DEQ’s Water Quality Division will cover the fundamentals of water quality permitting, an overview of the Clean Water Act, the framework and drivers of the National Pollutant Discharge System permit program regulations, the permitting application process, watersheds, and more.

Using Due Diligence Strategically

Cheyenne Chapman from DEQ’s Land Quality Division will moderate a session on environmental liabilities in property transactions which can make or break a deal. She will lead the discussion on how to identify and manage environmental risks and options for quantifying, managing and/or resolving those risks.

RCRA: Dangerous Waste Fundamentals

Brian Allen in DEQ’s Land Quality Division will participate in a session covering the basics of hazardous waste regulation with a focus on the underlying Resource Conservation and Recovery Act statute and Washington/Oregon state regulations. The discussion will cover waste identification, generator status, proper accumulation, labeling, record keeping and compliance.

Navigating the Enforcement Process

Jeff Bachman in DEQ’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement will discuss how an administrative enforcement action works. This panel will present a skit on negotiating a civil penalty assessment and order involving environmental violations.

PFAS: Current & Future State Agency Actions

Kevin Masterson from DEQ’s Land Quality Division will discuss the current state of rulemaking, regulation, environmental assessment and pollution prevention efforts related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in water supplies, products and more.

Advanced Stormwater: Changes in 1200-Z

Krista Ratliff in DEQ’s Water Quality Division is currently working on a rulemaking to renew the 1200-Z Stormwater Discharge General Permit. This panel will cover the permit renewal process and changes to expect in the renewed permit.

Conversation on Environmental Justice and Social Equity

Ann Farris from DEQ’s Land Quality Division in the Western Region office will talk with panelists and attendees about environmental justice and social equity. She will share how environmental justice and social equity principles have been incorporated into DEQ projects.

Cleaner Air Oregon

Keith Johnson, DEQ Air Quality Division, will participate in a panel on Oregon’s comprehensive air toxics regulatory program, Cleaner Air Oregon, which just celebrated its two year birthday. This panel will spotlight CAO’s implementation to date, and consider where the program will go from here.

What’s Up With the Clean Water Act?

Justin Green, DEQ’s Water Quality Administrator, will discuss the impacts and implications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the County of Maui, the Environmental Protection Agency’s revised Waters of the United States rule, and EPA’s modifications to the Clean Water Act 401 Certification rules. This will be a round-table discussion on how Washington and Oregon are dealing with these changes.

Oregon’s Cap and Reduce Program: What’s on the GHG Horizon

Colin McConnaha, DEQ’s Office of Greenhouse Gas Programs, will discuss program development, framework, and implications, focusing on what the program is likely to mean for sources in Oregon. In March 2020, Gov. Brown issued an executive order directing DEQ to take actions to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including implementation of a cap and reduce program to reduce state GHG emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

Managing Compliance & Continuity in Challenging Times

Kieran O’Donnell, DEQ’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement Manager, will discuss how these challenging economic times are affecting the stability of the environmental sector. The panel will cover what and how constraints have impacted operations, agency engagement, compliance and enforcement, and strategies for adapting best practices to create continuity and keep moving forward.

Modernizing Oregon’s Recycling System

David Allaway and Sanne Stienstra, in DEQ’s Materials Management Program (Land Quality Division), will talk about the Recycling Steering Committee that convened in response to unprecedented recycling market disruptions that had a profound impact on recycling programs throughout the Pacific Northwest. This presentation will summarize the committee’s process, innovative research conducted for the project, the group’s consensus recommendation, and DEQ’s draft legislative concept for modernizing Oregon’s recycling system.

Your DEQ Online: A New Cloud-Based System for Doing Business with DEQ

Harry Esteve, DEQ’s Communications Manager, will lead a panel comprised of the following DEQ staff:

Justin Green, Water Quality Administrator, Travis Luckey, Chief Information Officer, Angel Gillette, Your DEQ Online Project Manager, Christine Svetkovich, Water Quality Manager and Mitch Frister, Your DEQ Online Project Team Member. This panel of subject matter experts will share insights about DEQ’s move toward a central online hub to streamline the way we accept, process and share information. DEQ’s new Environmental Data Management System, called Your DEQ Online, will provide an easy and intuitive online system for connecting to DEQ.

The Clean Waste State Revolving Fund is one of 33 conference exhibitors.

CWSRF staff will be available to discuss the programs work. CWSRF supports communities by funding projects that improve water quality and environmental outcomes for the State of Oregon. The program is dedicated to working with small communities and on projects that increase financial and environmental sustainability, climate resiliency and water and energy efficiency.

One of the CSWCD loans financed new septic equip­ment which functions well and fits the limitations of this site much better than the failed septic system did.

About the conference:

Business & The Environment focuses on industry-wide issues and is a collaborative endeavor presented by DEQ, Northwest Environmental Business Council) and Washington Department of Ecology. The conference is the region’s largest environmental conference and expo.

About the Northwest Environmental Business Council

NEBC is the regional trade association representing leading service and technology firms who are working to protect, restore, and sustain the natural and built environment.

–Jennifer Flynt, public affairs specialist

DEQ plays key role in 2020 wildfire cleanup and recovery

Photo credit: DEQ, wildfire destruction in
Jackson County, Oregon

The series of wildfires that roared through Oregon in September destroyed thousands of residences and other structures. The cleanup process that will allow families and businesses to rebuild is well underway. Here’s an update on the progress, and DEQ’s role.

Two-step debris removal process – DEQ is part of the Debris Management Task Force, along with Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon Emergency Management, that is overseeing the removal of the ash and debris left when the fire destroyed structures. The two steps are 1) household hazard waste removal, and 2) remaining ash and debris removal.

Step 1: Household hazardous waste removal – Under contract from FEMA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hired crews of experienced haz mat teams to go through burned properties and remove hazardous items, such as propane tanks, car batteries, ammunition, fertilizer and other materials that might endanger workers in Step 2. Property owners who signed permission papers received this service for free. The work is nearly complete and EPA is getting ready to stand down.

Step 2: Ash and debris removal – ODOT is in the final stages of approving contracts for crews to finish the cleanup work by scraping and hauling away the remaining fire debris. Part of the work entails removing trees that might pose a hazard to workers and the public, and those contracts already are in place. Trees are being marked with barcodes that guide what will happen to them. Some will be used for erosion control, some for needed woody debris in streams to provide habitat, and others for lumber.

Natural and cultural resource protection – DEQ, along with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Oregon Department of Forestry, is overseeing protection of natural and cultural resources that could be threatened by the aftermath of the fire, including cleanup activities.

DEQ’s role will focus on water quality, such as preventing debris from entering drinking water systems and ensuring septic systems remain safe and protective of water quality. DEQ is also working with Oregon tribes to ensure protection of cultural resources.

DEQ has on-scene coordinators and watershed coordinators in all of the basins affected by the fires to assess highest needs and priorities for the work.

–Harry Esteve, communications manager

Restoring beauty and justice for the Klamath River

DEQ Director Richard Whitman recently stumbled on a 1958 KGW-TV documentary Crisis in the Klamath Basin. According to the Oregon Historical Society, the piece broke important new ground for television and the young producer, Tom McCall, who later would serve eight years as Oregon governor. McCall’s first documentary followed shortly after Congress voted to begin terminating treaty tribes, and previewed the disestablishment of the Klamath reservation of over a million acres.

“It was fascinating,” Whitman said. “I had never seen that kind of first-hand narrative about how tribal members felt about losing their reservation, losing their rights as a sovereign nation.”

The historic agreement to fund the removal of four lower Klamath River dams, announced Tuesday, represents a huge step forward in restoring not just miles of free-flowing rivers and lakes for fish, but also restoring some part of the cultural and social identity that the Klamath River tribes have had taken from them over the last 100 years. 

“I view the tribes as leading stewards of our environment and natural resources here in the Pacific Northwest,” Whitman said. “They have never lost their connection to the land and water and the life that depends on them.”

“I view the tribes as leading stewards of our environment and natural resources here in the Pacific Northwest,” Whitman said. “They have never lost their connection to the land and water and the life that depends on them.”

That’s why the agreement signed Tuesday – which makes it clear that the owner of the dams, Berkshire-Hathaway/PacifiCorp, supports dam removal, along with Oregon and California –  is such a big deal.

“It’s the states and Berkshire-Hathaway all saying: We are all in on restoring this resource to the tribes. This is a critical leading edge in the effort to put the environment in this part of Oregon back into balance.”

Klamath River

The Klamath salmon run once was the third largest in the nation, but the numbers have dwindled to near extinction levels after the dams were built cutting off hundreds of miles of habitat, and as water quality has steadily gotten worse.

“Their reservations were taken from them, their use of forest resources was taken from them and, over time, the fisheries are being taken from them,” Whitman said about the region’s tribes.

DEQ has a big responsibility to improve conditions in the Klamath, which runs nearly 260 miles from Klamath Falls through northern California. The dams create stagnant pools, which increase water temperature and contribute to harmful algae blooms and disease.

Removing the dams will have benefits rippling throughout the watershed, paving the way for fish to return to the upper basin, and opening the door to economic opportunity for the entire community.  However, more work remains to be done, and a next area of focus needs to be on working with farmers and ranchers in the basin to reduce nutrients that have overwhelmed Upper Klamath Lake, Whitman said.

“DEQ will have a central role in that work, along with the Department of Agriculture and local leaders,” he said. “We know the community can collaborate when it has a shared vision for a better future, and working with PacifiCorp and other partners we are beginning to help build a clear picture of a future that has a place for everyone.”

–Harry Esteve, DEQ communications manager

COVID, wildfire work shines spotlight on DEQ’s Angela Rowland

Before the global pandemic and the Oregon wildfires this year, Angela Rowland was working full-time as a Water Quality Permitting Policy Analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The job she signed up for on Oct. 1, 2019 quickly morphed into something no one could’ve expected. This year, while continuing her water quality program work, she also became one of the most valuable players on DEQ’s COVID-19 and Wildfire Response and Recovery teams.

“Angela has been the absolute guiding star of DEQ’s emergency response planning section and Incident Command team,” according to Kimberlee Van-Patten, who has been leading the planning effort for both the COVID and wildfire responses.

Deployed on April 1 to an Incident Command System team for DEQ’s COVID-19 response efforts, Rowland served as the Resource Unit Leader in the Planning Section. Her research on COVID-19 science-based information meant DEQ could provide accurate updates on the agency’s response to the coronavirus, keep staff safe and continue to protect public health and the environment. Her work included developing new protocols for fieldwork and inspections to determine what essential work could still be performed safely.

On Sept. 15, DEQ set up an Incident Command team for Wildfire Response. “I remember that I was busy collecting data from the COVID-19 staff survey on DEQ’s response when the Labor Day wind storm stirred up the worst Oregon wildfire disaster on record,” Rowland said. She said it was hard to grasp the full scope of the disaster, which left thousands without homes and burned roughly 1.07 million acres of Oregon forests. “My family had a camping trip reserved at Detroit Lake for Labor Day, and our hearts are broken for the town of Detroit (which was destroyed) and all across Oregon,” she said.

She serves as the Documentation Unit Leader in the Planning Section to ensure that every deliverable is tracked and she coordinates the regular “situational updates” to keep all staff informed of the wildfire response and recovery efforts. Rowland said, “I want to provide managers and staff with as much information as possible to help them in their everyday work, be it for COVID-19 precautions or staff getting phone calls from the public who are concerned about asbestos in their burned out home.”

In any crisis, information swarms in from every direction. The need to make sure it goes up the chain of command just as fast requires someone who can create clarity amid chaos. That’s Rowland!

“I see a bright future for Angela Rowland here at DEQ,” Van-Patten says. “We are lucky to have her on our team.”

In her free time she enjoys watching Star Wars, playing board games with her two kids, walking her dogs, camping, gardening, and telling “mom” jokes.

— Jennifer K. Flynt, public affairs specialist

DEQ Laboratory releases Willamette River Basin Water Toxics Summary

Oregon Willamette Basin

If you have been wondering if the Willamette River Basin is safe for swimming, the overall answer is yes. However, whether or not the river is pollutant-free, requires more of a deeper dive.

This week, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality released the Willamette Basin Toxics Monitoring Summary. It combines water, sediment and tissue sampling results from DEQ’s Toxics Monitoring Program in the Willamette River Basin from 2008 to 2010 and 2016. The goals of the assessment are as follow:

  • Get a snapshot of pollutants in the Willamette River Basin to help understand trends
  • Use the data to identify potential sources
  • Make the information available to the public
  • Work with internal DEQ groups, community groups and those living in Oregon to identify opportunities to reduce the pollutants
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-3.png
Clockwise above from upper left: DEQ’s Kara Goodwin collecting a sediment sample, crayfish collected in the Willamette River, DEQ’s Dan Brown collecting crayfish, sampling bottles and gear for a water collection.

Between the two studies included in the summary, 238 samples were collected from 47 monitoring locations. They were analyzed for various chemical groups, including current-use and legacy pesticides, consumer-use products, combustion by-products, dioxins and furans, flame retardants, industrial chemicals, PCBs and metals. The monitoring locations were divided into three sub-basins (Lower, Mid and Upper) to give attention to the diverse regions of the Willamette Basin.

In 2016, water samples were collected three times (spring, summer and fall), while sediment and tissue samples were collected once. Also, tissue samples, crayfish and mussels were collected to help gain an accurate picture of the environment at each sampling location.

Sub-basin Findings

Click here to see full infographic on findings.

Key findings in the sub-basins include:

Lower

  • Legacy pesticide concentrations remain high when compared to concentrations in the 2008-2010 study. Legacy pesticides are banned from use, indicating residual sources in the basin.
  • Mercury found in crayfish at the Willamette River at the St. John’s Bridge location exceeded DEQ’s human health criterion. The criterion assumes a consumption rate of 175 grams per day. This area is part of the Portland Harbor Superfund site.

Mid

  • Mercury found in crayfish at the Willamette River at Marion St. location exceeded DEQ’s human health criterion.
  • Concentrations of DDT exceeded its sediment benchmark across the Mid-Willamette basin. Concentrations at this level are not expected to adversely affect human health.

Upper

  • High concentrations of the herbicide diuron detected in water from Lake Creek do not pose a risk to human health.
  • DEQ detected 152 chemicals in sediment collected downstream from a stormwater outfall near Maurie Jacobs Park. The detected chemicals were not found at concentrations that pose a risk to park users.

Based on the results of this study, 11 monitoring locations were selected to become part of the Toxics Monitoring Program’s trend network. It consists of 60 monitoring sites across the state, representing each major river basin, as well as locations with elevated concentrations of chemicals of concern and background locations. DEQ’s Laboratory will collect water samples at these sites three times annually. Sediment and tissue samples will be collected once annually. All sampling depends on Lab resources and approval to travel during the pandemic.

Additionally, the results from the summary will be used to inform several existing DEQ efforts, including the DEQ Integrated Toxics Reduction Strategy, the Integrated 303 (b) and (d) Reports for the federal Clean Water Act, and Total Maximum Daily Load, National Pollution Discharge Elimination System and stormwater permitting and regulatory programs. This will ensure that the waters of the Willamette River Basin continue to meet water quality standards and are safe places for people to recreate.

Click here see the monitoring summary infographic

— Dan Brown, water quality assessment specialist