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By Janie Har October 21, 2011

Eileen Brady says that because of Portland City Hall ‘inaction,’ we may need to spend $500 million to cover and treat our drinking water

In announcing her campaign for Portland mayor, Eileen Brady called out City Hall for its lack of leadership in fighting a controversial federal mandate to treat Portland’s drinking water.

"Many people I’ve talked to are angry that because of City Hall inaction we may have to spend a needless $500 million to cover and treat our pure drinking water," she said in a kick-off speech posted on her campaign website.

Longtime critics who love Portland’s drinking water just the way it is have complained for years about commissioners’ seeming inability to protect Bull Run water from the heavy bureaucratic hand of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Brady is one of those people. So we can see where she might be less than impressed with City Hall’s response to the EPA. But is it accurate to characterize what’s happened in Portland as "inaction"?

Let’s recap: In 1993, scores of people in Wisconsin died from a cryptosporidium outbreak from their drinking water. In response, the federal government began drafting new regulations, releasing the rule in 2006. The rule required the city of Portland to cover its open-air water reservoirs and to treat its drinking water.

The city filed a lawsuit in federal court. The court dismissed the challenge in 2007.

In addition, the City Council passed a resolution promising to seek alternatives to the rule. They met with or contacted EPA officials seeking outs for the city. Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the bureau, said he talked to Oregon’s federal delegation, only to be told that there was slim hope of legislative relief.

So Portland wasn’t storming the gates in Washington, D.C., but that didn’t sound like "inaction" to us. We turned to Brady.

She said that she didn’t mean inaction as in no action. She meant inaction as in not enough action to shield Portland’s "elegant" drinking water.

"Our ratepayers are going to have to pick up the bill for a $400 million project that we probably could have worked more aggressively to find alternatives for," Brady said, referring to the amount of money needed to replace five open-air drinking water reservoirs at Mount Tabor and Washington parks with covered storage. (The other $100 million is to build a UV treatment plant.)

Brady wants Portland to be like Rochester, N.Y., which spent a mere $9 million on compact treatment plants allowing the city to preserve two open reservoirs. New York City won a reprieve on a $1.6 billion cover until 2028. Portland’s Water Bureau says our system is too old and too different to compare with other cities. That’s beside the point for Brady.    

"Portland could have taken the same aggressive stance that New York did, which was to provide a significant case as to why this was unduly burdensome," she said. "They made the case that Portland could have made had we been proactive about it."

This summer, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., complained about the rule’s one-size-fits-all nature and asked the agency to review. Surprisingly, EPA agreed. Leonard requested the Oregon’s delegation’s help in finding out how an EPA reconsideration could affect Portland. (Apparently we were Portland polite; they were New York loud.)

We asked state Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Ore., for her take on the issue. She represents the east Portland neighborhoods that have been the most vocal about leaving the water alone. Has the city been on the inactive side of the equation? "It’s not as black and white. I think there was a feeling initially that we’ve done everything we can, and now" after Schumer’s intervention, she said, "I think the city is pushing really hard."

Portland has spent about $1.2 million on the legal challenge, and nearly $1.4 million to date to get a variance on the treatment portion. In December 2009, the EPA denied the city’s request for a variance for the reservoirs.

We understand that Brady is running for office, and that she made a politically charged statement in a campaign speech. Had Brady said City Hall had done a lousy job fighting the federal government, we would not have troubled ourselves. Had she said that City Hall had been ineffective on this issue, we would have stayed away.

But she called it "City Hall inaction" and to the average person, that is not accurate. The city sued. City officials met with and sought answers of federal bureaucrats, and they sought help from the congressional delegation. The statement is False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Interview with Eileen Brady, Oct. 14, 2011
Interview with Jackie Dingfelder, Oct. 14, 2011
Email from David Shaff, Oct. 19, 2011
Oregon Wild, "History of LT2 Rule as it pertains to City of Portland"
Portland City Council meeting, PM session, March 25, 2009 (Accept the recommendations in the report on the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule Compliance Plan)
Portland City Council Work Session, Portland Water Bureau, "Bull Run Treatment," June 23, 2009
Portland Water Bureau, Treatment Variance Compliance Effort
Portland City Council budget session, March 13, 2009
Portland City Council meeting, PM session, March 25, 2009
Portland City Council meeting, AM session, May 27, 2009
Portland City Council Work Session, Portland Water Bureau, "Bull Run Treatment," June 23, 2009
Portland City Council Work Session, video, June 23, 2009
Portland City Council meeting, AM session, July 29, 2009
Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz, "Comments on Bull Run water treatment," July 28, 2009
David Shaff, "Written comments to PURB on open reservoirs," March 3, 2010
The Oregonian, "Expensive water treatment options divide Portland City Council," July 27, 2009
The Oregonian, "Portland leaders vow to fight water treatment," July 29, 2009
The Oregonian, "Portland water ratepayers to pay up to $500 million to prevent a rare drinking water threat," March 5, 2011
The Oregonian, "Concerns rise on Portland's costly replacement of in-town drinking water reservoirs," March 6, 2011
The Oregonian, "Oregon leaders question if feds will back off requirement for $145 million reservoir upgrades," Aug. 22, 2011
Portland Water Bureau, "Portland Water Bureau (PWB) LT2 Compliance Summary and Status," Jan. 5, 2011
Portland Water Bureau, "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Portland’s Open Reservoirs," April 21, 2011

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Eileen Brady says that because of Portland City Hall ‘inaction,’ we may need to spend $500 million to cover and treat our drinking water

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