Johnson Creek has a PCB problem

Three Oregon Department of Environmental Quality studies conducted from 2005 to 2014 found steadily increasing levels of contamination in the urban creek, and the highest levels were found in a 150-foot segment near a titanuim plant acquired this year by Warren Buffet’s investment firm Berkshire Hathaway.

Authorities never told Dave Ross, but dangerous toxic waste lurks among the cobbles and sediment in Johnson Creek as it winds right behind his home in a heavily wooded Southeast Portland neighborhood.

Three Oregon Department of Environmental Quality studies conducted from 2005 to 2014 found steadily increasing levels of contamination in the urban creek, and the highest levels were found in a 150-foot segment behind Ross’s house.

“It would be interesting to see more recent test results,” said Ross, who first learned about the pollution after a reporter shared a 2014 DEQ report containing the data.

That report, obtained as part of a larger public records request, revealed that high levels of two potent carcinogens — polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and nickel — and possibly a third, hexavalent chromium, pollute that section of the creek.

PCBs are the main contaminant of concern in the Portland Harbor Superfund site, on the Willamette River downstream from where Johnson Creek drains into the river.

“PCBs are so toxic that every single molecule can alter some aspect of normal physiology,” said Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany. “Just living near such sites increases risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, respiratory infections and asthma.”

A review of public records found PCB concentrations in Johnson Creek and the surrounding area spiked after 2012.

The DEQ is not sure what to think.

“We do not definitively know the source of the PCBs,” said Paul Seidel, a DEQ toxicologist.

Signs point to Precision Castparts

The most likely source by far is a Precision Castparts Corp. metals plant at Johnson Creek Boulevard and Southeast 46th Avenue, about four blocks from Ross’ house. Precision Castparts’ storm sewer pipe drains into Johnson Creek about 150 feet upstream from Ross’s house.

The metals manufacturer has a long history of unlawfully discharging industrial waste down its sewers. Since 1995, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services has cited the company 64 times for unlawful toxic discharges of PCBs and other contaminants to the sewers, and fined it an average of about $300 per violation, bureau records show.

Precision Castparts was acquired in January 2016 by Berkshire Hathaway, an investment firm led by chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, for $37 billion. The purchase was the firm’s largest in its 177-year history, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Precision Castparts is a defense contractor. There isn’t a plane in the air that doesn’t contain engine parts made by Precision Castparts, according to its web site.

In 2014, the DEQ found high levels of PCBs at 21 different locations in soils at the Precision Castparts plant.

Precision Castparts’ storm drainage system flows into Johnson Creek, just upstream from the most contaminated part of the creek.

Interestingly, Bureau of Environmental Services reports reveal that PCBs started showing up in Precision Castparts’ storm and sanitary sewers on Nov. 20, 2012, 11 days after the Portland-based company announced it was buying Titanium Metals Corp., a Las Vegas company known as TIMET. The deal closed in December.

Though PCB manufacturing has been banned in the United States since 1979, PCBs can be produced as a byproduct of other industrial processes. In 2014, the EPA slapped TIMET, by then a Precision Castparts subsidiary, with a $13.75 million fine for illegally making 84,000 pounds of PCBs per year — a stunning quantity. It was the largest fine in the history of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA also fined TIMET $275,000 for illegally dumping PCBs in trenches and pits near the Las Vegas plant.

TIMET makes titanium ingots and sends 15 percent of its titanium production to the Precision Castparts plant in Southeast Portland for further processing, according to a company news release.

Precision Castparts is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of titanium parts for jet engines and medical devices.

Alex Stone, a chemist with the Washington Department of Ecology who wrote a 2014 report about PCBs, including their presence in consumer products, says he hasn’t tested Precision Castparts’ titanium products. “So it’s hard for me to say yea or nay,” Stone said, “but I would be surprised if they were not containing PCBs as contaminants.”

The titanium manufacturing process has been cited as a source of PCBs by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the Australian government, among others.

Company doubts TIMET link

David Dugan, Precision Castparts’ newly named director of corporate communications, denied that the company’s titanium was the source of the PCBs found at the site or in the creek.

PCBs had been spilled at the plant in the early 1990s “due to the rupture of a large capacitor inside the facility,” Dugan stated in a written response to a reporter’s questions. However, the EPA supervised an aggressive cleanup of that spill and in 1998 declared the site to be free of PCBs.

Dugan did not explain why PCBs reappeared in the same general area of the plant 14 years later. “The November 2012 samples were collected in an area that had not been previously tested and was not part of the remediation efforts in the 1990s,” he said.

Dugan insisted the new PCB discoveries by DEQ were “unrelated” to the company’s purchase of TIMET around the same time period.

The offenses found by the EPA occurred a few years before Precision Castparts purchased TIMET, he said.

At the TIMET plant, Dugan explained, chlorine is used in a chemical reaction to extract titanium from ore. “Most of the chlorine is recovered and reused. However, a very small amount of the chlorine, in the form of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) molecule, is contained in dust that is collected by TIMET’s emission control systems. Once collected, the dust is carefully disposed of at an approved facility.”

The EPA, however, accused TIMET of making 84,000 pounds of PCBs per year, not just a few specks of PCB dust.

DEQ science questioned

The data collected in Johnson Creek may fall short of describing the full extent of the PCB contamination. Both the city and DEQ used a low-resolution test that the EPA says is capable of identifying only a handful of the 209 known types, or congeners, of PCBs. At the TIMET site, the EPA used a high-resolution gas spectrometry test that found 208 of the 209 congeners.

“Any method that does not measure all of the PCB congeners is inadequate,” said Carpenter, of the Institute for Health and the Environment in Albany.

In June, the DEQ began checking to see whether toxic metals emitted by Precision Castparts had been blown by the wind around the neighborhood. It is collecting soil samples at Errol Heights Community Garden, in two Errol Heights community parks, and at Lane, Meriwether Lewis, Ardenwald and Seth Lewelling schools. The DEQ also is testing soils along the Springwater Corridor trail and in nearby natural areas.

The sampling will test for five metals found at levels above an ecological health threshold: nickel, lead, chromium, copper and zinc, plus arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, iron, manganese, cobalt, selenium and titanium.

But the DEQ won’t be testing these areas for PCBs, said Seidel, the agency toxicologist, because “there is no known or suspected release mechanism to air for PCBs.”

On this issue, the state environmental regulatory agency is at odds with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which has warned the public about the dangers of PCB vapors in the air. “They can easily cycle between air, water, and soil,” the agency stated in 2000.

“I find it incredible that staff at the DEQ deny that (PCB) air releases are significant,” Carpenter said. “This shows a degree of ignorance of scientific information that is really not excusable.”

Contaminants exceed health standards

A 2005 DEQ study found PCBs throughout the lower two miles of Johnson Creek, from Ross’s house to where the creek drains into the Willamette River in Milwaukie.

It’s not easy to precisely identify where pollutants originate. But DEQ found more than 71 percent of the PCB samples collected downstream from Ross’s house posed risks to the stream’s ecology, compared to just 12 percent of samples in the 22 miles upstream from that section.

In its 2012 analysis, DEQ found pollutants in the creek abutting Ross’s house were modestly higher than in 2005.

But when DEQ studied the creek again in 2014, PCBs were 20 times higher than in 2012. Nickel was up 17-fold and chromium was up 15-fold.

DEQ detected PCBs measuring up to 480 parts per billion, or more than twice a standard the agency calls a “risk-based concentration,” a level of contamination that is projected to cause at least one cancer diagnosis in 1 million people. DEQ also detected 2,500 parts per million of nickel, an amount that’s two-thirds more than the health risk standard, as well as 1,000 parts per million of chromium. The DEQ did not test to determine whether the chromium was of the hexavalent variety that has been found in the neighborhood’s air. If it were, the chromium found in the creek would be 3,333 times higher than the risk-based concentration standard.

PCBs and hexavalent chromium are among the most potent carcinogens known to science, and nickel isn’t far behind, according to the EPA.

David Ross said he was never alerted by state or city authorities about contamination in the creek behind his house or any associated health risks. Nor was Dick Nelson, whose family owns the house where Ross lives.

That section of Johnson Creek also abuts nine other dwellings.

Ban didn’t get rid of PCBs

In 1979, Congress banned the manufacture of products containing PCBs after finding that exposure caused birth defects and cancer. When released into the environment, PCBs can persist for decades because they do not break down through natural processes. PCBs continue to contaminate thousands of sites around the country today, notably the Portland Harbor Superfund site.

However, PCBs are still present in products and materials produced before the 1979 ban, as well as in 68 common consumer products made today, including titanium, pigments, dyes, newspapers, glossy magazines, caulks, clothing, cosmetics and plastics, according to a 2014 report by the Washington Department of Ecology.

Creek PCBs could move into Willamette River

Now that PCBs have been found in Johnson Creek, they could eventually migrate into the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, says Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, an advocacy group monitoring the Superfund cleanup.

WIlliams and others worry that could throw a wrench into Superfund cleanup plan, because the creek drains into the Willamette River in Milwaukie, before the river flows downstream to the Portland Harbor.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spent 15 years devising a cleanup strategy for a polluted 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River. The actual cleanup will require several years and could cost more than $1 billion.

PCBs are the main contaminant of concern in the Superfund site.

Aftera reporter shared a 2014 Department of Environmental Quality report on PCB discoveries in Johnson Creek with Williams, he said the PCB levels in the creek seem to be “on par” with PCB levels in the Portland Harbor.

“If further investigation shows PCB levels in the range of what we see in the Portland Harbor Superfund site, it would definitely justify an independent Johnson Creek cleanup,” Williams said. “We should also consider to what degree Johnson Creek has been a source of PCB pollution to the Willamette River.”

PCBs in the Portland Harbor largely stem from decades-old industrial discharges. But a review of public records showed PCB concentrations in Johnson Creek and the surrounding area jumped considerably after 2012, and may be linked to Precision Castparts Corp., which has a nearby metals and storm pipe draining into the creek at its most contaminated section.

“Given the well-known impacts from PCBs on wildlife, and potentially people, related to fish consumption, the state of Oregon needs to take this seriously and determine how widespread PCBs are in the creek, and they must also seek the original source of that pollution,” Williams said.

“The state of Oregon can engage the polluter in a voluntary cleanup process. If the polluter does not agree to a voluntary approach, the U.S. EPA can force the polluter to take action under the Superfund (CERCLA) law.”

Neighbors want PCB warning signs

Many people who live near the Precision Castparts plant first learned about its pollution problems last April, when Cascadia Times revealed that the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services had discovered 20.5 tons of toxic “goo” in the company’s underground pipes that drain into Johnson Creek.

Precision Castparts cleaned out the storm sewer line in 2015, and no cleanup of the creek is planned until next year at the earliest, said Paul Seidel, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality toxicologist.

Julie Reardon posts her own warning signs alerting neighbors to PCBs found in Johnson Creek near David Ross’s house. She lives 15 blocks from Precision Castparts, which is just upstream from the site.

Neither the DEQ nor the city of Portland have posted warning signs near the creek, and see no need to do so.

In April, Sarah Clark, who lives about 10 blocks from the creek, sent emails to Portland City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish pleading for signs to be posted.

“Given that the city has known about these pollution issues since 2008,” her email said, “how come the public has not been warned?”

She urged the city to erect signs “at all publicly accessible spots” downstream from the Precision Castparts plant. “Children continue to play in the creek,” she said.

But in a joint reply, the commissioners dismissed Clark’s plea.

“DEQ sampling shows that a portion of the creek, about 150 feet downstream of Precision Castparts, has modest pollutant levels, but only in an area that is fairly inaccessible to the public,” said Fish and Fritz, who oversee the Bureau of Environmental Services and Portland Parks & Recreation, respectively. Those pollutant levels present an ecological concern but not a human health concern,” the commissioners stated.

The statement made no mention of several families that live within a few feet of the most contaminated section.

“Areas with public access to Johnson Creek, such as Tideman-Johnson Park, have low pollutant concentrations which are not deemed human health risks. For that reason, DEQ, the Oregon Health Authority, and the city do not recommend that warning signs be posted along Johnson Creek related to water quality,” the commissioners concluded.

A few days after this email exchange, several signs warning about “toxic contamination” in the creek suddenly appeared near the creek. They were posted by Julie Reardon, who lives about 15 blocks from the plant. But they were soon taken down, and she can’t prove who did it.

“Removing them was an insult to the community,” Reardon said. “They deserve to know what’s in Johnson Creek.”

Last week, she reposted two warning signs near David Ross’s house, where the highest levels of pollutants were observed in 2014. But she says the creek needs action, not words.

“It should be cleaned up right now,” she said, “because it is dangerous right now.”

Scroll to Top