Archive for category Sewers & Sewage

On the Siting of Portland’s Wastewater Treatment Plant: Environmental Racism, or Not?

I heard a statement recently suggesting that one of the reasons the City of Portland built its wastewater treatment plant where it did–at the far north of the city–was that this was where people of color lived. The decision was, therefore, an example of environmental racism, whereby white civic leaders burdened communities of color with urban infrastructure that wouldn’t have been tolerated in white, affluent neighborhoods.

Having read sanitary engineer Dr. Abel Wolman’s 1939 report on the Portland’s sewer system, I knew first-hand the engineering logic behind this decision. I didn’t know enough about the area in which the treatment plant was built to have a perspective on the question of whether or not its siting was an example of environmental racism. With help from the experts at the City of Portland Archives, it was time for some research!

Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant ca. 2018 (Google Maps)

Read the rest of this entry »


Leave a comment

Portland harbor wall, then-and-now

Aerial of completed harbor wall, 1929 (City of Portland, Series 8402-01)

A few days ago, the Oregonian ran a “then-and-now” article on Portland’s harbor wall. In it, author John Killen referenced one of my posts, “Construction of Portland Harbor wall, 1927-1929.”

Leave a comment

Some thoughts on the recent EPA critique of contaminant report from the Lower Willamette Group

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Feb. 10, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are three comments at the original post.]

The information cited below is somewhat reminiscent of the conflict between the City of Portland (CoP) and the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) in the late 1950s regarding the city’s inadequate treatment of its sewage. The OSSA (and other abatement advocates such as the local chapters of the Izaak Walton League and the City Club of Portland) were pushing the CoP to implement secondary sewage treatment, because the city’s then-current primary treatment regime was insufficient to ensure adequate dissolved oxygen in and north of city limits. However, CoP leaders (Mayor Schrunk, et al.), balked at making these costly upgrades. So, the OSSA took the city to court and by 1961 forced the city to propose a tax levy and expand their sewage treatment infrastructure.

At least one place where this general pattern breaks down, however, is that pollution related to sewage is significantly less complex to deal with than the current issues with persistent, toxic, and bio-accumulative chemicals.

Ah, makes me wistful for the good ol’ days of floating feces and toilet paper . . .


Scott Learn, “Milestone report on Portland Harbor pollution lowballs risk, EPA says,” Oregonian Jan. 22, 2010, p. B8.

Key excerpts:

“EPA officials say the October report from the Lower Willamette Group prematurely rules out some harbor contaminants as threats to wildlife and overstates uncertainties about the pollution’s risk to human health.”

“The dispute is important: The lower the risks of harbor pollution in Willamette River sediment, the less cleanup work the group’s members and other harbor landowners will have to do.”

Leave a comment

“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:

Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment

Portland’s ca. 2009 sewer shortcomings echo Portland’s ca. 1958-1961 sewer shortcomings

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 12, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are two comments at the original post.]

Francis Storr, 2007, Creative Commons

An Oregonian article from November 11, 2009, suggests that Portland’s expenditures on infrastructure to keep sewage from the Willamette River and Columbia Slough may be insufficient to achieve environmental standards [Scott Learn, “Portland in potentially costly tussle with EPA over sewer plant.”]. To summarize the main points:

1) Portland’s existing sewage infrastructure is insufficient to achieve environmental standards;

2) A government agency is pushing Portland to expend more money on the city’s sewage infrastructure and will hold a hearing on the topic in a couple of weeks;

3) City officials assert that these stipulations are onerous and threaten to push citizen’s sewage disposal costs to exorbitant levels; and

4) This city official asks of the government agency pushing for these changes whether the agency will give Portland credit for the work they’ve already done, “or are you just going to pick up a different bat to hit us with?”

Hmmmm . . . let us enter the time machine now, and go back to the late 1950s (as documented in my MA thesis, “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962,” Portland State University, 2009) . . . Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment

Swimming in the Willamette River in and near Portland

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 26, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

For quite a number of weeks now I’ve intended to finalize this post about swimming in the Willamette River in and near Portland Harbor. Two discussions about swimming in the river can be found at this Portland Mercury Blogtown post, and at this archived “Think Out Loud” program from Oregon Public Radio.

Now, for some historical context . . . Read the rest of this entry »


1 Comment

Construction of Portland Harbor wall, 1927-1929

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

I recently discovered a source detailing the planning and construction of Portland’s west-side harbor wall, written by the city engineer who planned and implemented the project, Olaf Laurgaard.[1] There will be a short section of one chapter in my book that will provide an overview of the construction of Portland’s sewage infrastructure up to the 1930s, and Laurgaard’s source will help me immensely in describing the construction of the west-side harbor wall–which also included an intercepting sewer.

Laurgaard first proposed the project in February 1920 as a way to re-develop this portion of the harbor and protect a large section of downtown that was prone to seasonal flooding. This part of Portland Harbor was a center of waterfront warehousing, commerce, and transportation through the first years of the twentieth century. By the 1910s, however, the area became increasingly run-down, and by 1920 the area from Clay Street on the south to Flanders on the North was marked by abandoned buildings, empty lots, and derelict wharves.

Twenty-eight gravity-fed raw sewage outfalls lined this portion of the waterfront, a number of which were exposed during low-flow periods of the Willamette River. These gravity-fed lines backed-up during seasonal freshets, causing raw sewage to fill the basements of downtown buildings.

Decrepit infrastructure, crumbling buildings, vacant lots, and periodic inundations of sewage appreciably reduced the real estate values within a 425-acre swath of the downtown business district. The Portland City Council requested plans of City Engineer Laurgaard to clean-up this area and resolve the flooding issue. Laurgaard submitted his plans in May 1925, and City Commissioners awarded the J. F. Shea Company the $2,135,000 contract in November 1926.[2] On May 1, 1929, Laurgaard and his team ran an official pump test for the entire interceptor and pump station to check the quality of the contractor’s work.

Below are a selection of images and diagrams from Laurgaard’s 1933 treatise on the Portland Harbor wall project, supplemented by a few images from the City of Portland Auditor’s Office Historic Photos website (as indicated)
Read the rest of this entry »

, ,

1 Comment

It couldn’t possibly get any more exciting than this!

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 13, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Of late I’ve been extremely focused on my book project. Today I’ve been immersed in archival sources relating to the City of Portland’s attempts to design, fund, and build a comprehensive sewer interceptor and primary treatment system in the 1920s and 1930s. The story is fantastically complex and I’ve been piecing together the chronology, learning about the motivations and personalities of the key players, trying to condense the key events at the local, state, and national levels in a way that will convey the complexity in an intelligible way.

One of the key elements my book will stress is that while the Willamette River pollution abatement movement was centered in this region and abatement advocates worked within a specific set of technological, political, economic, and ecological systems, the movement at every stage relied upon public and private input. For example, in the 1930s Portland city officials benefited from the expertise of two of the foremost professionals in their field, Harrison P. Eddy of Boston, and Abel Wolman of Baltimore. In 1943, Portland city leaders benefited from the clout of renowned New York City planner Robert Moses to jump-start the sewage system plans that Eddy and Wolman had proposed.

Oregon’s abatement advocates also relied upon funds and research assistance from such federal agencies as the National Resources Planning Board and the Public Works Administration, and regional organizations such as the Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission.

As part of my research process, I’ve also discovered an interesting Internet resource:

    ** A collection of materials “related to the history of sewage conveyance systems. Many of these have been displayed in a traveling exhibit entitled “The Collection Systems Historical Photo and Artifacts Display.” The overall collection of sewer history materials covers the era from approximately 3500 BCE through the 1930s CE.”

It’s hard to have more fun with one’s clothes on, let me tell you!

Leave a comment