Archive for March, 2012

Who defines “pollution,” anyway?

“River Looks Bad to Two Parties,” Morning Oregonian, Aug. 5, 1936, p. 3.

The talk I gave last week—”River City Confidential: The Willamette River Pollution Story Revealed“—seemed to have gone well, based upon the feedback I’ve received thus far. I certainly had a great time, and I hope it was both entertaining and educational.

Based upon some of the questions I got at the end of my talk, I should have made clearer at the outset that I was following the lead of pollution abatement advocates themselves in identifying the City of Portland and the five (later seven) pulp and paper mills as the primary polluters in the Willamette watershed. From the 1920s through the 1960s, abatement advocates within and outside of the Oregon State Sanitary Authority were focused on alleviating oxygen-depleting, point-source pollution (from mills and sewage) and bacteria (from raw sewage), because these two sources were by far the most pressing concerns to the river’s health and public health.

I indicated in my presentation that abatement advocates were primarily focused on these two sources of pollution, but that they did not ignore entirely other types of pollution from other sources. From the 1920s, they were also able to measure turbidity, temperature, ph, and other biochemical aspects of water quality, and they worked to abate pollution from meat, vegetable, and flax processing, logging, mining, and other sources.

Regarding other kinds of pollution, it was not until the 1960s that scientists really began to focus on non-point sources of pollution generally. The earliest evidence I have found for specialists’ concern with radiological pollution was in the late 1950s. Dioxin was not a land pollution concern until the Agent Orange issue of the early 1970s, and was not definitively linked to water-borne pollution from pulp and paper mills until the mid 1980s.

In most (if not all) cases, the current complex types of pollution that came to define the Portland Harbor Superfund site did not concern pollution abatement advocates into (and often beyond) the 1960s because the effects of these pollutants were not known, and scientists quite often had not yet developed ways to measure either the pollution or the effects. This knowledge would really only begin to be uncovered in the last decade or so of the period of my talk (from the late 1960s).

From my research in primary and secondary sources, Read the rest of this entry »


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Narration to 1940 silent film “Willamette River Pollution”

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Oct. 11, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

I recently received an email query from someone researching Willamette River pollution about the location and content of the narration to William J. Smith’s 1940 film “Willamette River Pollution.” I blogged about the content of this film here and here, but I haven’t yet written anything about the narration. Therefore, below the fold I’ll provide my interpretation of the film’s narration, by way of providing the substance of my response to that email query.

Also, below this, I’ve pasted the partial transcription of the narration that I made from a copy with rather poor audio.

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Willamette River pollution film, 1940

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on April 15, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary, on March 22 and April 17, 2012.]

A version of the film above was shown at the April 14 Portland Harbor CAG meeting. I wrote a brief post in November 2009 about the Willamette River film. In this post today I’m going to expand on what I wrote previously to clarify the film’s provenance and provide a bit more historical context for the film.

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Sewage, dead rats, and blood — oh my!

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 6, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Still showing two men fishing at raw sewage outfall in Portland Harbor, late summer 1940. (William Joyce Smith. Pollution in the Willamette, (Portland, Oreg., 1940))

This is just an amazing film, and I have to tell everyone about it!

William Joyce Smith produced this color film in summer 1940 showing the lamentable conditions of the Willamette River. Smith was a member of the Portland Chamber of Commerce, state manager of the National Life Insurance Company, and president of the Oregon Wildlife Federation. His film showed municipal and industrial waste discharges from Springfield north to Portland Harbor, providing graphic evidence of the thick, discoloring discharges and mats of detritus in the river from raw sewage outfalls and pulp and paper, meat processing, canning, textile, and other industries. Smith’s film also echoed tactics used in the 1938 media campaign in support of water quality initiatives: Men were shown immersing hatchery fingerlings in river water where, in most cases, the fingerlings died within forty-five seconds because of extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen.

Smith produced his film as part of efforts by citizen’s groups to convince the City of Portland to commence its proposed sewage disposal project by preparing for post-war sewer construction. Nearly two years after Portland’s sewage funding measure had passed, city officials still had not taken any substantive steps. Smith contributed to the efforts of the state Izaak Walton League of America and others increasingly frustrated with this lack of progress. Members of the Oregon State Sanitary Authority viewed Smith’s film at its December 13, 1940, meeting, as the authority continued to pressure Portland officials.

Praise be to the dedicated archivists and librarians (such as those at Oregon State University) who commit themselves to preserving, cataloging, and making available invaluable resources such as these for all of us to enjoy!


River City Confidential: The Willamette River’s Pollution Story Revealed

Still from William Joyce Smith's 1940s film, Pollution in the Willamette, showing two men fishing at a raw sewage outfall in Portland Harbor, ca. Aug./Sep. 1940.

Come one, come all!

“River City Confidential: The Willamette River’s Pollution Story Revealed.”

March 21, 2012 7:00-8:30 pm.

EcoTrust Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center, 721 NW 9th Ave., Portland, OR, United States View on Google Maps

“James Hillegas shares insights from his upcoming book on the original Willamette River pollution cleanup, from the 1920s to the 1970s. Co-hosted by the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group and Oregon Historical Society.”

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Speaking for the River Born at 6:51 p.m., March 4, 2012

Portland Mayor Joseph K. Carson, Jr. (center), and other Portland citizens demonstrating during the "Demand Clean Rivers" campaign, early Nov. 1938. Their efforts were in support of both the City of Portland's sewer funding mechanism and a citizen's initiative to create the Oregon State Sanitary Authority. Both measures passed two-to-one on November 8, 1938. (Oregon Historical Society Research Library, CN 0012453a.)

This Sunday evening, I finished my manuscript for the book that is tentatively titled Speaking for the River: Confronting Pollution in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The book began life as a thirty-page graduate school seminar paper in 2008, grew into a hefty 140-page Master’s Thesis in 2009, and exists now as about 85,000 words of text. The book now has to go through review, and will likely be reduced and refined as a result of this process, but it’s been a long time in coming and it’s great to have finished this stage! More and positive news to follow, I do hope!

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