News

Federal pollution penalty may impact coastal communities


The state of Oregon has lost $1.2 million in grant money this year because of the inability to target and control coastal pollution from logging, agriculture and other sources.

By Brad Mosher

bmosher@countrymedia.net

It may lose more funding if the state doesn’t create an approved pollution control plan the Enviromental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That drop in funding could have an impact in Tillamook County, along with other coastal counties, according to local and area officials.

After a recent legal decision, Oregon became the first state to face penalties for failing to meet the federal standards set in the Clean Water Act.

In March, federal regulators announced the money would be withheld from $4 million in funding assigned to Oregon and instead be spread to other states.

The state has been warned for many years by federal regulators that the terms of the Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Program were not being met and in 2015 the state received a warning that there would be financial sanctions if the state did not start to comply.

The cut in funding will not be a one-time penalty, but could continue for years if the state still fails to adequately address the coastal pollution.

The state has not been adequately meeting the requirement for decades. States on the coasts are covered by the 1990 law requiring them to control water pollution. Oregon was given until 1996 to comply.

Oregon is one of 10 states that have not had the federal regulators approve a coastal pollution plan.

The Oregon plans were determined to be too weak in riparian protections for streams, reducing runoff from unused forest roads, reducing runoff in landslide-prone areas and making sure herbicides are properly applied to cut down on the impact to waterways.

The state was unable to come up with a plan to be presented to the federal agency during the legislative session earlier this year.

Until the state comes up with an anti-pollution plan that gets federal approval, Oregon could continue to lose funding from federal grants, according to officials.

In order to get the full funding from the federal agencies, the state must have a plan to curb and mitigate the pollution impacts, especially on the coast.

According to York Johnson of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, there are a number of reasons for the pollution problems.

“One of the three main areas where the federal agencies thought that the state of Oregon’s Coastal Nonpoint Pollution control plan was inadequate was in the forestry sector, related to the protection of non fish-bearing streams and riparian protections in general,” the North Coast Basin coordinator for the state DEQ said Thursday in an interview.

In addition, the federal groups had problems with how the state handled and inspected septic systems.

The new developments focus is primarily on storm water runoff from streets and other infrastructure, Johnson added.

Tillamook County’s propensity for flooding wasn’t specifically covered in the announced penalty, he said. “I think the feds are more concerned with general runoff from the average rainfall in the winter and not particularly these large storm events that cause a lot of the damage and destruction.

“They are just talking about controlling pollution from the general rainfall events when you are washing off your streets. Potentially, there is a lot of copper dust on the streets that will dissolve in rainwater. If it flows into the streams, it could be harmful to salmon,” Johnson said.

According to the official, the problems the federal agencies see are not related to large storms or the size of culvert to handle flood waters. “It is dealing with your average rainfall and the runoff associated with it,” he said.

As one example, the use of street sweepers to clean copper dust and other pollutants off the roads could be a way of planning a more aggressive anti-pollution program that might be approved by the feds as being adequate. “The sediments and things that have all these contaminants on the streets would be off the streets and collected prior to rain events. That means they would not be washing off the streets directly into the streams and causing pollution that would be detrimental to fish,” he said. “There needs to be storm water drainage locations that are vegetated so that the water that has the pollutants can flow into the areas. Then the natural processes and plant growth can pick up some of these pollutants so they are not going directly into the water,” he added.

Copper dust is a product people and roads have brought to the coast. The dust or particles comes off the brakes on most of the vehicles using roadways in the state, he explained. “That is a major component of the brake pads. As they wear down, that accumulates on the roads and can be washed into or waterways,” he said. “That is nothing particular to Tillamook, it is just an issue we have to deal with in general throughout the state.”

The dust could be controlled better by more frequent street and road sweeping so that it isn’t accumulating on the road surface to be washed off by the next storm, he said. “Also, with the storm water run off, having the water go to vegetated areas that could contain the water and have the natural ecosystem processes break down these metals and things before they are deposited in the streams and rivers – those would be good examples of the things we can do to mitigate the effects (of the pollution).”

There are natural processes that would allow the plants to keep the pollution out of the surface water, he added.

 

Timber needs to improve

According to Johnson, the federal agencies have said that riparian repair by local agencies, watershed councils and groups like the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership have an impact. “But the state’s Forest Practices Act, state practices and industrial timber were not providing sufficient buffers and not providing sufficient protection to non fish-bearing streams to maintain water quality,” he said, citing the view of the federal agencies.

That has led to a decrease in water quality in the coastal areas, he added. “It is really the land that is under the ODF (Oregon Department of Forestry) jurisdiction that the feds pointed to as being inadequate.

“The issues that they (the federal agencies) pointed to were independent of the work that the local agencies and groups are doing. The local groups typically work on land that is not in the forest management area. I think that, in general, they are working on more private lands and are associated with agriculture. It was the overall forest management that the feds were saying was inadequate,” he added.

State needs to create plan

Even if Tillamook County and local communities were the best in handling all sources of water pollution, that would still not cover problems created on state lands, he explained. “Even if the North Coast was doing a good job or implemented more stringent protections, the feds are looking at the Oregon Coast as a whole,” Johnson said. “Even if it was throughout the entire coastal zone area, I don’t think it would change the feds’ determination. They are looking to the state and how the state manages this area and the requirements it places in this area for approval or disapproval.”

Johnson did say the local organizations could go to the state and tell them to be in compliance with the federal requirements and regulations, but he suggested not to. He said it would still be only the state responsible for putting together a plan that could be approved by the federal agencies. “It really is up to the state,” he added.

Oregon losing funding

The problem came to a head in recent months after a lawsuit was filed by an environmental group over the state’s decades of noncompliance.

“Through the Coastal Zone Act authorization amendments in 1995, the feds gave conditional approval to the Oregon plan. In 2009, the lawsuit said that the feds either had to approve or disapprove – they couldn’t have a conditional approval.

“That forced the federal agencies to make that determination if this was an acceptable plan or not. The outcome was, they (the feds) said that it was inadequate because of the forest, septic and development issues,” he said.

“We definitely lost grant money going to the North Coast, communities and local individuals to do local riparian repair efforts,” Johnson explained.

“Meeting the requirements might reduce other funding sources also,” he added.

Johnson is also the water quality coordinator for the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership in Garibaldi.

TEP asked feds to avoid cuts

Lisa Phipps, the executive director of the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership in Garibaldi, sent a letter to one of the federal agencies two years ago, asking the EPA and NOAA to reconsider the decision to levy penalties against the state.

According to Phipps, the TEP and many of its partners use the federal funding to help protect and improve the coastal ecosystem. “In adopting the Tillamook Bay Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, the community identified four key areas we focus on – key habitat loss, water quality, minimizing flood impacts and citizen involvement,” the letter explained. “The TEP, as well as many of our partners, utilize Section 319 funds to implement projects to address water quality issues in our watersheds.

“TEP uses Section 319 for a variety of programs. Section 319 dollars are the primary source of funds for one of our programs which directly impacts non-point source pollution – our Backyard Planting program,” Phipps said in the letter.

 

“We also do not think that either the EPA or NOAA are anticipating the possible economic impacts – particularly in rural communities. The restoration economy is significant in the state of Oregon,” she added.

 

The loss of some of the funding would be a blow to the local jurisdictions who have no control over the state regulations that the federal agencies are concerned with, she explained in the letter.

 

In the letter, Phipps also asked that the federal agencies continue to work with the state to solve the problems with the state’s pollution plans and not make the drastic cuts.