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(Blumenauer and ) Potter will fight EPA water rule

Portland's mayor will lobby for an exemption from requiring the city to remove or kill a parasite in its drinking water sources
Thursday, February 03, 2005

Mayor Tom Potter has waded into the long-simmering spat over a proposed federal rule that would require Portland to spend millions treating its drinking water.

His message: City leaders are resolute and unified in their opposition to the planned regulation, even if some neighborhood activists who oppose water treatment don't believe it.

Potter plans to lobby hard in coming months to win an exemption.

"Tom wants to be sure that everyone who needs to be involved is involved, and that people see that we are serious about aggressively seeking a waiver," said Austin Raglione, a mayoral aide who is leading Potter's study of city bureaus.

Portland leaders have told the Environmental Protection Agency that before, with little success. EPA regulators expect to finalize a new law requiring cities with unfiltered water systems to take steps later this year to remove or kill cryptosporidium, a chlorine-resistant parasite.

If Portland chose to comply, options would range from killing the bacteria with ultraviolet radiation, at a cost of $60 million, to filtering it out at a new $200 million filtration plant. Ratepayers would pay for such improvements.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and city Commissioner Dan Saltzman both have asked the EPA for an exemption. Regulators have refused. (Saltzman oversaw the Water Bureau before Potter took over all city agencies last month.)

But neighborhood activists, who last year persuaded Portland's City Council to back off a plan to cover the Mount Tabor reservoirs, say the city hasn't been firm enough. They say Portland's water supply is already clean and safe from cryptosporidium. The group Friends of the Reservoirs recently sent out a statement to supporters and city officials accusing the Water Bureau of lobbying for the new EPA rule -- a charge that managers strongly deny -- and urging people to write Potter and city commissioners to complain.

"We were pleased when Commissioner Saltzman made his requests, but it seemed somewhat half-hearted," said Floy Jones, a Friends of the Reservoirs organizer. "What the mayor is talking about doing is what we've been advocating for a long, long time."

The mayor's staff will present a resolution to the Portland Utility Review Board today reaffirming the city's request to be exempted from the EPA rule. The City Council probably would approve the resolution later this month.

Potter and his staff also are inviting neighborhood activists, the city's largest water customers and representatives of Portland's congressional delegation to a meeting with city managers Feb. 10 to try to figure out how to win a waiver.

Of the six major U.S. cities with unfiltered water supplies -- a list that includes Seattle, San Francisco and New York City -- only Portland has chosen not to respond to the upcoming EPA rule by planning or beginning construction of a system for combating cryptosporidium.

The new rule stems from a 1993 outbreak of the organism that killed more than 100 people and sickened 400,000 in Milwaukee, Wis.

Environmental regulators think that outbreak stemmed from sewage contamination in Lake Michigan. The Friends of the Reservoirs and other opponents of a filtration system for Portland note that the city's Bull Run reservoirs, located near Mount Hood, are far more remote and much better protected than most other reservoirs in the country. They say the chances of a dangerous amount of sewage getting into Bull Run water are minimal.

Potter wants to steer clear of scientific debates and focus instead on the costs of treating Portland's drinking supply. That's fine with the Water Bureau.

"You cannot deny that there is an amount of risk there, but you can argue what the relative risk is and how much bang we get for our buck," said Mort Anoushiravani, the Water Bureau administrator. "You cannot challenge the science of it. What we are saying is that the risk is manageable."

Anna Griffin: 503-294-5988; annagriffin@news.oregonian.com

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