Archive for category Science

Portland Harbor Death Zone: V. 2, with a bonus!

Hillegas-Elting Final Project Map

My final project for the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course I took during the Fall 2013 quarter offered me the opportunity to build upon an earlier project and posit a qualitative and somewhat whimsical question: Where could I have lived in Portland in the 1930s and have been far enough from the river not to smell the stench (say, five blocks) yet close enough to walk to it (say, up to 1.25 miles) during the rest of the year when it didn’t stink? The darker green areas in the map to the right generally show where this would have been possible.

Read the rest of this post for more information about how I created this map and to see the full map with accompanying images and text. Read the rest of this entry »


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Healing Portland Harbor after the clean-up

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Dec. 10, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There is one comment at the original post.]

I went to a Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group meeting last night at which was discussed the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. Tonight there will be a forum for public commentary on the NRDA that was presented last night; I won’t be able to attend this meeting due to prior commitments.

First, an overview of what I learned at this meeting; second, some thoughts spurred by what I learned.

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Complex problems require multiple and coordinated approaches

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

As Willamette River Keepers’ Travis Williams writes in Sunday’s Oregonian, “in order to make the Willamette function more naturally and to make it cleaner, multiple actions, involving a variety of approaches, must be taken.” These include the restoration efforts outlined in Joe Whitworth’s recent article.

Additionally, Williams observes that “Given enough teamwork, patience and persistence, we can help create a healthy, naturally functioning and clean river for people and wildlife.” I appreciate this positive attitude. David Charlton, Tom McCall, Ed Averill, William Joy Smith, and many other clean streams advocates held this same view as they worked toward alleviating Willamette River pollution beginning in the 1920s.

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“Rivers and streams are nature’s sewer systems”

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Dec. 4, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Below you’ll find the text of an interesting Letter to the Editor from John Beau in response to the Oregonian article “Evolve or die? It’s crunch time for the Willamette” (that I posted an entry about a few days ago), and a response to Mr. Beau by “dtroutma.”

Considering this Letter to the Editor and the comment to it, I want to discuss four points:

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Willamette River solutions, version 2009

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 30, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Image from National Resources Committee Special Advisory Committee on Water Pollution, Water Pollution in the United States (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939).

There were two noteworthy pieces on efforts to restore the Willamette River in the Sunday Oregonian, both by Joe Whitworth.

The first is titled “Evolve or Die: It’s Crunch Time for the Willamette.” This article begins by noting the rate of snow pack loss in the Cascades since 1955, which directly impacts the flow of the tributaries of the Willamette River and, therefore, the flow of the Willamette, which, in turn, degrades habitat and concentrates pollution. Whitworth concludes the article by describing a new system of managing and fast-tracking stream enhancement projects that could help us rectify stream quality issues in a wide-ranging and coordinated manner. He writes:

the consequences of how we’ve used our watersheds and waterways have come into focus: Runoff of pollutants, erosion and overheated streams mean degraded water quality and impaired aquatic habitat. Because tributaries and rivers operate like veins and arteries, good spots here and there cannot correct accumulated negative impacts. We need contiguous, functioning stream zones that sweep across whole basins if we hope to correct current downward trajectories for fish, water quality and even economic prosperity.

Whitworth’s second article is titled “An Oregon Roadmap for Healthier Rivers.” This shorter article outlines how new technologies and approaches introduced in Oregon to improve water quality can become a national model.

Whitworth describes a watershed-level approach to water quality that has its roots in the efforts of the New Deal National Resources Committee (NRC) from the 1930s.[1] After reviewing below highlights from some of these efforts between the 1930s and early 1960s, a cynic could say that the process that Whitworth outlines and advocates for is just another in a long line of efforts, and yet the river continues to degrade. An optimist might say that our approaches are getting increasingly more refined and, therefore, perhaps we’re finally getting closer to a lasting solution. Based on the historical evidence below, I’ll let the reader decide . . . Read the rest of this entry »


Portland Harbor Death Zone


In September 1934, average levels of dissolved oxygen in the stretch of Willamette River through the core of Portland Harbor was functionally zero.

So what?

Healthy aquatic ecosystems require certain base amounts of oxygen available in the water column—otherwise fish, plants, and other organisms start to die off. If the water gets too low in dissolved oxygen it turns anaerobic and supports only organisms like those that thrive in swamps and produce methane and other odorous gases. This is the kind of stench that this guy was complaining about.

Euro American society succeeded in turning the vibrant and dissolved-oxygen-rich lower Willamette River into a smelly, filthy, functionally anaerobic environment in relatively short time. It only took them about seventy years: from the 1850s, when large-scale White settlement began, until the early 1930s. A river system that had been evolving over millennia to support a diverse array of plants, benthic life, and fish life—including the anadromous salmonids—had been converted into a stinking sewer over the span of just one human lifetime.

The image above illustrates clearly how unhealthy Portland Harbor was to aquatic life during the Willamette River’s annual low-flow period (July-October). Read the rest of this entry »


Chemical analysis of Willamette River water quality in 1910?

I had a blog & email exchange on the topic of Willamette River water quality that I wanted to bring to everyone’s attention . . .

I recently approved what is called in blogspeak a “pingback”—a link in a post or comment from one blog referring to another blog. This pingback came from author Ruth Tenzer Feldman who referred to Speaking for the River to provide some context about Willamette River water quality in 1912 for her book Blue Thread about life in Portland in 1912, the year that the state’s voters finally approved woman suffrage.

In her post Ruth referenced 1910 as the year of the first chemical analysis of Willamette River water quality. I had not come across such an early date for this so I replied in a comment:

“You write above that ‘the first chemical analysis of Willamette River water was made in 1910.’ I’m curious where you found this information cited because in my research I have not found such an early date for the first analyses of dissolved oxygen or biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the Willamette; I have, however, found references to bacteriological analyses of Willamette River water during the 1900s and 1910s (and beyond) that detected typhoid, fecal coliform, and other bacteria.

“The BOD analysis method was not developed until the early 1910s and from my understanding the first application of this method (or something similar) in the Willamette was in the early-mid 1920s. (Sources: Martin Melosi, _The Sanitary City_, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000, pp. 228-229; George Gleeson, _The Return of a River_, Oregon State Univ. Press, 1972, p. 11.)”

She replied via email with her reference for the 1910 date, to which I replied:

“I have done extensive research in the scientific analyses produced on Willamette River water quality from the earliest years into the late 1960s as well as the ‘grey literature’ during these decades — ‘grey literature’ referring to government reports and analyses that are not themselves actual scientific research but summaries, compilations, and updates that make use of previous government reports and scientific analyses. As you can imagine, as environmental management and regulation became an increasingly more important aspect of state and federal governance in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond, both scientific analyses and grey literature were produced at ever-increasing rates. Beyond the late 1960s or so I have done less-thorough research into the vast pile of scientific research and grey literature that was produced, simply because there’s so much of it available!

“I had not, for example, read the EPA’s 1976 report Restoring the Willamette that you alerted me to. With the link you provided I found mention on page 27 of this report that ‘Chemical analyses of Willamette River water were first made in 1910.’ The report’s authors cite George Gleeson’s 1972 The Return of a River as their source for this piece of information, but nowhere in his work does Gleeson state this. From this discovery and the information found in the Melosi book that I cited in a comment on your blog, my conclusion is that the EPA’s authors made an error either in their transcription of the date or in not including whatever citation they found that provided that specific piece of information. My educated hunch is the former since I have never seen any reference to a 1910 date for the first chemical analysis of the Willamette River and, as I commented on your blog, the biochemical oxygen demand test was not developed until about 1913.

“Regarding the quality of the Willamette during the first half of the twentieth century, you’ll find some very interesting and entertaining items for context in the attached thesis [I attached a PDF of my 2009 MA thesis “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1929”]. For example, the baptisms and swimming events of the 1910s and 1920s and the reports of extreme stench in the river and Columbia Slough in the 1940s. Also, there’s this image from the Oregonian in 1936 that’s one of may all-time favorite images on this topic: “There is almost criminal negligence of city officials to permit this.”


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Dioxin and Willamette River Pollution: A First Step Into the Toxic Waters

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on May 18, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

This post provides some preliminary research and analysis on dioxin pollution in the Willamette Watershed connected to pulp and paper mill effluents.

I was recently at an environmental history conference and found myself in a discussion with someone doing research on dioxin pollution from pulp and paper mill effluents. As we were sharing stories, I realized that I had not seen a single reference to the word “dioxin” in any of the government reports, newspaper articles, professional journals, letters, or other primary sources from the 1900s into the 1960s that I have consulted thus far. Over the past few weeks, I’ve searched various primary and secondary sources, with the goal of determining just when dioxins became a known toxin, and when they were linked empirically with pulp and paper mill effluents, to determine if I had inadvertently missed something very important (and would have to re-write my thesis), or if this type of pollution hadn’t been discovered until after the 1960s (and I was OK).

Here is what I have found thus far . . . Read the rest of this entry »

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Smelling One’s Way to Cleaner Water? Comparing pollution abatement in Oregon and Maine

In the most recent issue of Environmental History there is an informative article on mid-twentieth century water pollution abatement in Maine’s Androscoggin River watershed. Author Wallace Scot McFarlane completed an undergraduate thesis at Bowdoin College in 2009, from which he drew the core of his 2012 article. McFarlane “explores how people’s views of science and the environment were reshaped during the transition from localized nuisance control to concerted environmental action, from the 1940s to the 1970s,” and he does so predominately by focusing on the work of a (if not the) prominent abatement figure in the watershed from the 1940s through the 1960s, Dr. Walter A. Lawrance.[1]

McFarlane’s article provides a valuable point of reference to compare and contrast water pollution abatement efforts in Oregon with those in other states and provinces. There are at least two other works that offer a state-to-state comparison of the history of environmental legislation generally, and water quality specifically, in Oregon and Maine.[2] McFarlane’s work effectively builds upon these other sources by focusing on the efforts of a single person intimately involved in the science and administration of water quality; therefore, his article provides details that the other works on Maine do not. McFarlane’s article is also a welcome addition to journal-length studies on water pollution in Washington State, Illinois, British Columbia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Connecticut.[3]

From the second half of the nineteenth century well into the second half of the twentieth, the economies of both Maine and Oregon were heavily reliant upon the heavily-polluting pulp and paper industry, which is another reason why studies of Maine are relevant to the situation in Oregon. Maine’s Androscoggin and Oregon’s Willamette were both impacted significantly for decades from the effects of untreated pulp and paper wastes. (Historian Gregory Summers has written a study of water pollution in another watershed with long connections to the pulp and paper industry, Wisconsin’s Fox River, which I mention here in passing for reference. [4])

Comparing and contrasting events in Maine and Oregon brings to light important details that illustrate, in practical terms, the ways in which people’s values in North America relative to the environment changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how these changes happened differently in different cultural and political settings. Within the realm of water pollution, one can observe that Oregonians were relatively more progressive and proactive than Mainers in that they created their state water quality agency earlier than in Maine, they did so through citizen initiative, and they granted it stronger powers. Further, water quality oversight in Oregon from 1938 through 1967 involved a board of seven that included the head of the State Health Officer, State Engineer, State Sanitary Engineer, and State Fish Commission Chair (in addition to a staff of on-the-ground engineers and technicians) who were financed from the State General Fund and tasked with abating a wide array of industrial and municipal pollutants; oversight in the Androscoggin watershed, in contrast, appears to have been centered on one man whose work was constrained to sulfite pulping wastes only and who was funded to a significant degree by the very industries that produced these wastes. As a result, the Willamette River was significantly cleaner than it had been for decades (in terms of pulp and paper wastes) by the time Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Androscoggin was not.

Below the fold I’ll provide a brief overview of Walter Lawrance’s work in the Androscoggin watershed and specify the evidence I’ve used to draw my conclusions. Read the rest of this entry »


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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