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Pissed at Portland: Uncovering the City's Public Health Hypocrisy

Laura Orlando

Portland, Oregon, recently dumped eight million gallons of drinking water into the sewer because a man was caught on camera urinating in the city’s reservoir. The Associated Press picked up the story and National Public Radio's "Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!" couldn't resist poking fun at it. After the laughs, a closer look at Portland's public health hypocrisy gets deadly serious.

City officials won't let its residents drink a cup of pee diluted by millions of gallons of water, but they'll let them eat food grown on land covered with toxic sewage sludge.

For most urban water drinkers, urine in the water is the least of their problems. A March 2008 Associated Press story starts: “A vast array of pharmaceuticals - including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones - have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.” Every year, the EPA does a survey of “emerging contaminants” in drinking water. The 2009 report notes several toxins: sucralose, antimony, siloxanes, musks, nanomaterials, per-fluorinated compounds (PFCs), pharmaceuticals, hormones, drinking water disinfection byproducts, brominated flame retardants, perchlorate, dioxane, and pesticide degradation products.” It is not raining sucralose (an endocrine disruptor). Instead, look to the sewers and their outfall pipes, which often discharge into drinking water supplies.

Besides what is deposited into the sewer by roadways, households, industry, hospitals, and every other legal and illegal source imaginable, what comes out the outfall pipe is sometimes generated by the chemistry happening in the confines of the wastewater treatment plant. What the engineering and public health community call "disinfection byproducts” is a good example. Two unintended, highly toxic byproducts of the chlorination of wastewater are Trihalomethanes (THMs) and N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). NDMA is a nitrosamine and, according to the textbook, “Wastewater Engineering Treatment and Reuse,” (McGraw Hill 2003), is “among the most powerful carcinogens known.”

Ah, but Portland's water supply isn't linked to outfall pipes. Its vigilant city officials are protecting the public from drinking a 21-year old man's pee by dumping millions of gallons of drinking water into the sewer. Silly, but a certain sort of vigilance that – however misguided -- might be appreciated by Portland's residents.

So where is the city official’s vigilance when it comes to Portland's food?

Portland participates in the national sludge disposal scam with vigor, participation made possible with a decidedly absent vigilance by public officials.

The eight million gallons of drinking water with its cup of pee will course down the sewer and into Portland's Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant, where it will mingle with the nanomaterials, PFCs, pharmaceuticals, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and flame retardants, among other environmental and public health horrors. It will move through Portland's secondary treatment process, where, if repelled by water (oil and grease act this way, as do flame retardants and other toxic chemicals), the organic matter and the above mentioned chemicals will find their way to the solids in the treatment tank, and if not, partition to the waste water, which, after chlorination, is dumped into the Columbia River.

The treatment plant's leftover solids -- aka sewage sludge – are anaerobically digested and then disposed of on 5,492 acres of pasture, wheat, canola, and hay near the town of Echo, Umatilla County, 190 miles from Portland, in northeastern Oregon. Echo has about 650 people, with a per capita income of $15,879 and 15.4% of the population living below the poverty line. The county is home to the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the U.S. Army's national arsenal of nerve gas.

It usually works this way. Toxic sewage sludge (and it’s always toxic) is either laundered by “composting” or pelletizing, or dumped in poor counties or on farmland where farmers are paid to take it. The EPA promotes “land application” with meaningless regulation and lots of propaganda. Prohibited by the USDA organic standards, sludge, sometimes referred to by the PR term “biosolids,” is routinely called “organic” by municipalities desperate to get rid of this troubled byproduct of wastewater treatment. No wonder the public is duped. Who thinks about sewage sludge, anyway? All the while millions of tons of the stuff are being disposed of on food crops.

The sewage sludge dumped on Umatilla land might have a little of the young man's nitrogen contribution, but it will also have a lot of chemical dregs of the 80 "significant industrial users" and 89 "other industrial dischargers" to the Portland waste water treatment plant. Industrial users like the chemical companies -- Chipman (now Rhone-Poulenc) and Pennwalt (now Atofina) -- that made DDT and manufactured 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, the building blocks of Agent Orange.

A little pee in the drinking water doesn't sound so bad

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Laura Orlando

Laura Orlando ( is Executive Director of the Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

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