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Oregon Businesses Facing Tighter Water Pollution Rules

Hundreds of Oregon industrial facilities are facing tough new restrictions on their stormwater pollution.

Robert Grott, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Business Council, says the restrictions are catching many businesses off-guard.

"Many of them are not in compliance with what they should be doing, so we're trying to bring people up to par," he said. "A lot of businesses aren't staffed to do this right. They might have just one person or a few people on a maintenance team that are supposed to comply with what can be a very complex, technical challenge."

Stormwater pollution includes motor oil from parking lots, metals from roofs, or any other gunk that washes off hard surfaces when it rains and ends up in rivers, streams or marine waters.

In response to lawsuits filed by environmental groups in 2007 and 2008, the state updated its benchmarks to permit less stormwater pollution from many industrial facilities in Oregon.

As a result, 800 industrial facilities now have new permits for stormwater pollution with tighter restrictions on copper, lead, zinc and suspended solids. And many of them will be required to reduce the pollution coming from their facilities starting in 2016.

Ron Doughten of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said two years of monitoring showed 175 businesses were exceeding the new stormwater pollution benchmarks. Those facilities are now required to treat their stormwater to reduce pollution levels. That has been hard for some businesses, he said.

"I think the benchmarks create some challenges for some industries, but I think it can be very industry-specific because the sources of the pollutants can be different depending on the industry," Doughten said. "That's what makes this very complicated."

Grott said businesses are facing "a continually evolving challenge" from new stormwater regulations that won't end with the restrictions on copper, lead and zinc. He says his organization is well positioned to help.

"What our organization does is represent companies, engineers, consultants, technology providers who have been working on this for at least a decade," he said. "So, we're trying to make those connections."

Grott's hosted a conference on managing stormwater in Oregon in Portland Thursday. Its focused on Oregon's new, more stringent benchmarks for industrial stormwater pollution.

Doughten said a handful of businesses have been fined so far for failing to submit adequate pollution control plans as the new regulations require.

One of them is of Cornelius, a company that makes ethanol from food waste. Owner Mark Smith said his company did submit a pollution control plan, but the state didn't accept it.

In fact, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined his company $4,000 for failing to submit an acceptable plan.

"It's kind of difficult to comprehend," Smith said. "I agree with what they're trying to do. I want the water to be clean. I'm not one bit trying to get out of complying. We just a have a difference of opinion on how to get there."

Stormwater from his company's facility was fine under the old rules, Smith said, but under the new rules it has too much zinc in it. Smith said he thinks the zinc coming from the roofs on his older buildings, and he can reduce the source rather than install a $100,000 system to treat the stormwater running off his facility.

His company has until next year to find a plan that meets state requirements.

Grott said many companies are feeling "somewhat overwhelmed and perhaps threatened" by the state's new rules, and he hopes Thursday's conference will let them know they're not alone.

His group has hosted stormwater conferences in Washington for the past eight years. Grott says both Oregon and Washington are responding to the tightening of stormwater pollution control requirements set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is responding to Clean Water Act lawsuits. The toughest new rules deal with metals, he says, especially zinc and copper, which harm fish, but are also difficult to remove.

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Stormwater pollution includes microscopic particles of heavy metals, such as copper from brake pads.
Katie Campbell /
Stormwater pollution includes microscopic particles of heavy metals, such as copper from brake pads.

Cassandra Profita