Avoiding Omaha: Portland should abate its CSO discharges sooner rather than later

Lauren Parker

Welcome to Omaha? This is the first year that the College World Series will be played at the new TD Ameritrade Park. Business owners are concerned that the event will be remembered instead by the smell of sewage. (Photo credit: Stadium Journey)

On Monday, June 20, the Portland City Council will vote on a proposal for the Tier III projects of its Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Plan. Pursuant to this vote, the city will decide how long it wants to continue discharging sewage and other pollutants from industrial wastewater and stormwater runoff into Portland’s waterways through its combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Portland’s CSO abatement project originated in 1991 when the city entered into a Consent Decree with the Board of Environmental Protection to resolve the city’s ongoing violations of state and federal law through its unpermitted discharges into waterways. Under the city’s initial Master Plan, it agreed to abate discharges from 33 of its CSOs by 2008. Although 2008 has come and gone, the city is still years away from completing its CSO abatement project. More specifically, the city is debating whether Tier III of its abatement plan should be completed in 15 years or in 25 years. The project is going to cost ratepayers under either time frame, but the sooner the city abates these discharges, the sooner water quality in Portland improves and the businesses that depend upon good water quality benefit.

While it may be easy to overlook water pollution since it can be difficult to see, it is not easy to ignore the unpleasant and unmistakable stench of untreated sewage. Just ask the residents and business owners in Omaha, Nebraska, as well as the thousands of people descending upon Omaha for the college world series, which Omaha is hosting for the first time—in a brand new stadium.

Like Portland, Omaha still has a CSO system in place.  And right now, Omaha is discharging sewage into the Missouri River because the Missouri’s flooding has overwhelmed Omaha’s wastewater treatment system, just in time for “record crowds” which must reluctantly tolerate the stench.  Some business owners have expressed concern over the affect that the smell of sewage will have, but as the stadium’s marketing manager pointed out, there is not much that can be done other than “deal[ing] with it” and hoping that visitors’ lasting impression of Omaha is one of great baseball rather than the foul smell of sewage.

Fortunately for Portland, it has been spared such unfortunate circumstances—for now. But instead of just tolerating the problems caused by continued use of its CSO system, Portland should, as urged by CLF, “deal with it” by abating CSO discharges sooner rather than later, a task that the Public Works Department, through its work in recent years, has shown it is more than capable of handling.  Twenty-five years is too long to sit around holding our breath and hoping that what is happening in Omaha does not happen in Portland.

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