Spill drills and current busters

The ships come and go, but the plan – equipment and people – are always here and prepared to respond.

— Elizabeth Wainwright, MFSA Director

Ships from around the world carry oil into Oregon. In the unlikely event of a spill, DEQ is helping ensure the state is prepared to respond. Recently, I had a chance to witness one such drill and discuss the procedures with DEQ Spill Contingency Planner, Scott Smith.

You may have seen news coverage with Smith talking about what their drills entails and about the Marine Fire and Safety Association.

The association “is like a type of pollution insurance plan that ships carrying oil into Oregon can buy into,” Scott told me. It maintains an oil spill contingency plan that is approved to respond to spills along the Lower Columbia River from the mouth near Astoria to the I-205 bridge, and on the Willamette River from Willamette Falls to where it meets the Columbia. The pan covers more than 1,500 vessels each year to meet the high standards established by Washington and Oregon.

Scott and I went to watch a deployment drill, which means that the responders practice using some of the equipment they would use in an oil spill response. These drills are conducted no less than twice a year in accordance with DEQ, Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Coast Guard regulations. This time, they were using a newer technology called a Current Buster. It’s a type of boom that funnels the oil between two inflated arms and then separates it from the water so it can be pumped into a holding take and taken to a refinery.

While only a few pieces of equipment were being deployed, there were a lot of people. That is because Maritime Fire & Safety Association establishes partnerships with communities along the parts of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers that they cover, and members of those communities volunteer their boats and their own time in the event of a spill. On this day, many of these community members out of Cathlamet, Washington, were present to learn how to deploy the Current Buster.

Actual spills are quite rare due to prevention measures in the way that ships are built, but it makes me feel better knowing that we at DEQ are part of a partnership that upholds the standards for oil spill response on our rivers. As MFSA Director, Elizabeth Wainwright said, “The ships come and go, but the plan – equipment and people – are always here and prepared to respond.”

-Lauren Wirtis, Public Affairs Specialist

DEQ awards $600,000 in grants for reduce, reuse, recycle programs in Oregon


The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is awarding nearly $600,000 in grants to 17 organizations around the state to promote reduction, reuse and recycling of consumer materials. These annual grants, provided by DEQ’s Materials Management program, boost projects that benefit Oregon’s environment and share best practices.

“Oregon has long had a strong recycling ethic,” said DEQ Director Richard Whitman. “But we are learning that we must do even more to fight pollution of our land, air and water. These grants matter because organizations need money to continue doing this important work.”

Some examples of funded projects include:

  • Preventing wasted food by purchasing freezers and other equipment for Marion Polk Food Share, investing in a farm-to-school program in Jackson County and developing a food waste curriculum for Portland Public Schools.
  • Reducing throw-away plastic utensils at Bend’s High Desert Museum and at the Rosewood Initiative in Portland.
  • Improving recycling in multifamily housing in Multnomah County, and starting a composting project in Douglas County.

The grants help support partnerships between community-based organizations and environmental groups; and many of the projects serve economically distressed and historically underserved communities, which supports DEQ’s commitment to environmental justice.

DEQ has awarded more than $9 million in materials management grants since 1991. The program moves the state toward its 2050 Vision for Materials Management, and plays a critical role in engaging Oregon communities in sustainable materials management practices.

Get more information about DEQ’s Materials Management program grants here.
View the full list of the funded projects here.

Concrete crusade: DEQ’s initiative to reduce carbon emissions with a different kind of concrete

Businesses and governments looking to reduce their carbon footprint are turning to an unlikely source: concrete. The ubiquitous product—used in roads, bridges, buildings and sidewalks—is responsible for about 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

“Concrete is the second most consumed substance on Earth after water,” said Jay Mustard, materials management specialist for DEQ’s Eastern Region. “We pave a lot of this planet.”

Now concrete producers, with the help of DEQ, are measuring and reporting the environmental impacts of different mixtures to meet market demands for greener concrete.

Traditional concrete mixtures use cement as the glue that holds the rocks and sand together. Cement is derived from limestone, which is naturally high in carbon dioxide. When limestone is heated to very high temperatures during the cement production process, it releases its naturally occurring carbon dioxide. About half of the carbon emissions produced during this process are from the limestone itself, with the other half coming from the fossil fuels burned to generate heat for the kiln.

Lower-carbon formulas use a cement alternative like slag, a byproduct of steel manufacturing that would otherwise be headed for a landfill. There are several other substitutes that also have significantly lower carbon emissions than cement. These alternatives can reduce carbon emissions from concrete up to 50 percent and are usually available at a similar price.

Jordan Palmeri, senior policy analyst in DEQ’s Headquarters, has worked with local Oregon concrete producers, including CalPortland, Hooker Creek and Knife River, to develop Environmental Product Declarations for several concrete mixtures. These third-party certifications provide consumers information about the environmental impacts of making the product—similar to nutritional labels on food products.

Having an Environmental Product Declaration scores points in the LEED green building rating system and is a selling point for local governments and businesses that have carbon reduction goals. DEQ runs a voluntary program with the Oregon Concrete and Aggregate Producers Association that provides concrete producers with resources and financial incentives to develop these declarations.

“This is one of these options where the technology, materials, opportunity is there — it just needs to be used more,” said Palmeri.

Because of DEQ’s work, the city of Portland recently passed an ordinance requiring concrete Environmental Product Declarations to be submitted on all city construction projects, and the city of Bend incorporated recommendations about concrete into its forthcoming Climate Action Plan, which the Bend City Council is scheduled to vote on early this winter.

Mustard is also advising Facebook’s sustainability director on the possibility of using low-carbon concrete for the massive data centers Facebook is building in Prineville and other locations around the world.

“Getting cities and businesses to switch to low-carbon mixtures can have a huge impact,” said Mustard. “And I think they’re going to do it.”

Learn more about the tools DEQ and partners developed to support low-carbon concrete at the Oregon Concrete Environmental Product Declaration Program webpage.

— Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist

Collaboration is key as Air Quality permits come online

About a year ago, the seed of an idea began to form: Put air permits and related documents on the DEQ website for the public to search and view. It would address recommendations the Secretary of State made in a recent audit and help keep our promise to Cleaner Air Oregon stakeholders to make air quality permits more easily accessible. It also lined up well with DEQ’s efforts to modernize and streamline the agency’s processes with “Your DEQ Online,” a new data management system. Both increase transparency and efficiency.

In April, we had a full team composed of air quality staff from headquarters and regional offices, as well as people from software development and integration and IT operations. Led by Program Analyst Sujin Yean, they worked together to obtain approvals, set up a new server, develop special coding, scan an enormous amount of existing air permits, test the new system, create a manual and train permit coordinators, among other things.

That seed has now flourished into a full program. On the AQ Permits Online webpage, the public can now access current air quality permits and modifications, review reports and more. The system covers ACDP and Title V permits, and has replaced the current DEQ Title V Permits directory. The same documents can also be found using the Facility Profiler-Lite Interactive Viewer, a map-based interface.

“We accomplished our goal in seven months because everyone worked so well together. We couldn’t have done it without every team member’s input,” said Yean. “It was truly a collaborative effort.”

That cooperation continues, as permit coordinators will add new permit documents as they come in, as well as those that might have been missed. Headquarters staff will provide ongoing support.

− Susan C. Mills, public affairs specialist

The Future of Bradford Island

On Oct. 10, 2019, DEQ, Washington State Department of Ecology and the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation submitted a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requesting that EPA place Bradford Island on the National Priorities List, more often known as Superfund. This was shared with DEQ staff broadly and covered by OPB. How did we get to this step and what’s next?

Bradford Island sits in the main stem of the Columbia River where the water surges through the Bonneville Dam. The east end of the island was used as a landfill for disposal of various wastes for decades. The Army Corps of Engineer’s disposal of hydroelectric equipment containing PCBs has created serious contamination on the island, in the water and in the river sediment. In the water PCBs can accumulate in fish tissue. Tribal fishing platforms extend over the river, but often go unused given the health advisory against any consumption of fish from this area.

Paul Seidel, DEQ’s NW Region Cleanup Program Manager, described the unique nature of Bradford Island saying, “You can see the complete exposure pathway from the contamination in the water to the person who might consume fish from this area. That’s quite rare. Usually cleanup is done on the basis of hypothetical exposure.”

DEQ, Ecology, and the Yakama Nation have been working hard for years with the Corps to have the site cleaned up, but adequate progress has not been made in a timely manner. Additionally, since funding was not allocated to the Corps to progress in its cleanup, transitioning responsibility to the EPA is the best path towards cleanup in the future, Seidel said.

“We believe it is critically important for the health of Oregon and Washington residents and tribal members that this site is cleaned of hazardous materials,” he said, “and that is why we have taken the extraordinary measure of seeking Superfund listing.”

So, what’s next? The EPA has to decide whether the site is eligible for listing. It did not meet the criteria for eligibility in 2008, but much more is now known about the extent of contamination. The EPA will evaluate all of the information about the site to evaluate the risks it poses using their Hazard Ranking System to see if the site scores at or above an established qualifying level.

If it is listed, EPA would be the lead regulatory agency (currently it is the Corps) and DEQ would be a support agency providing oversight on any cleanup work. This would also create a mechanism for funding DEQ work on this site, which does not currently exist. For now, Seidel said he believes this is the best course for DEQ, taking a shared step with Washington and the Yakama Nation to stand up for clean waterways.

DEQ opposes rollbacks of Clean Water Act regulations

On Oct. 21, 2019, Gov. Kate Brown sent a letter to the Acting Administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detailing opposition to proposed changes to section 401 of the Clean Water Act. Section 401 gives the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and tribes the authority to issue water quality certifications for projects that require a permit that may result in a discharge to waters.

“Water quality certifications are required for any activity that is obtaining a federal permit or license and will, or has the potential to, impact waters of the state,” said Steve Mrazik, DEQ Water Quality Program Manager. “They’re how we ensure that projects will meet the state’s water quality standards, which is why the Clean Water Act allows for state input and conditions on these projects.”

DEQ worked with the governor’s office to articulate what these changes would mean for Oregon’s water quality. The letter highlights a number of significant concerns, including:

  1. Limiting activities that require water quality certification to point sources only
  2. Hindering states ability to include conditions for approval and allows federal agencies to dismiss conditions
  3. Restricting application review time regardless of project complexity or completeness of the application
  4. Lacking meaningful input from the states

There are many potential consequences if these changes go into effect. “If this were to be implemented, it would impact water quality in Oregon,” Mrazik said. “Additionally, Oregon has created some innovative solutions to promote water quality while working with permitees, but limited timeline and ability to enforce conditions would undercut these efforts.”

The governor’s letter is a clear request of EPA to reconsider rolling back regulations that work well.

“The State of Oregon requests that EPA give due consideration to the grave and significant concerns raised in this comment letter, withdraw its unlawful proposed rule, and sit down in a meaningful collaboration with the states to define what problems need to be fixed.”

EPA will be reviewing comments received in the fall before making a final decision in May 2020.

-Lauren Wirtis, public affairs specialist

Deeper dive on health of Oregon’s waterways

DEQ released its most comprehensive evaluation yet of the health of Oregon’s rivers, stream, lakes and other waters.

Water quality and DEQ lab staff made significant improvements to the Integrated Report on Surface Water Quality and List of Water Quality Limited Waters, including a more robust analysis. The report is available this year in a new digital and fully interactive format, which offers tremendous amounts of information in a more user-friendly format.

The report provides a unique opportunity for the public to understand the overall status of Oregon’s water quality and gain a better understanding of how DEQ is maintaining, improving and protecting Oregon’s waters.  

Some highlights to note in this report:

  • DEQ held its first statewide request for data submission since 2004/2006
  • DEQ reviewed and included data from over 70 organizations comprising 7 million rows of data and 140 different pollutants
  • The most widespread water quality impairments continue to be temperature, dissolved oxygen, and E. coli
  • For the first time, the entire Oregon coastline appears in the report as an area of concern for acidification

DEQ submitted the report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval after public comment ended in December 2019.