Molalla River. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Clean water is essential for people and wildlife to survive. The city of Molalla—located in Clackamas County, Oregon—is failing to protect this right. For over a decade, Molalla’s sewage treatment plant has violated the terms of its Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permit, undermining people’s health and the quality of the Molalla River.

The facility contains two storage lagoons, each of which needs to be cleared out. However, as the lagoons remained filled, they could not hold incoming wastewater. The excess wastewater was sprayed on unauthorized fields and in excessive quantities, particularly during the summer months, causing ponding and runoff into Bear Creek. Additionally, the facility’s outdated piping collects stormwater and groundwater, further exacerbating capacity issues at the City’s facility. The City has neglected its duty to properly manage the plant.

The DEQ sent several warning letters to the City in the past. But, it has never taken any formal enforcement action for the persistent violations. On behalf of Bear Creek Recovery, Crag stepped in to hold the City of Molalla accountable for years of violations against the Clean Water Act.  

What's at Stake

Poor water quality has a direct impact on people’s health and the environment. Treated sewage wastewater is not safe for human contact. As Bear Creek and the Molalla River flow to the Willamette, the deterioration of water quality has far reaching impacts. When the City of Molalla discharges wastewater during the summer, people swimming in the river are immediately put at risk. During the summer season, flows are lower which means less dilution for wastewater discharges.

The history of violations at the City’s facility is the result of poor maintenance and mismanagement of the sewage plant as well as failing infrastructure. Bear Creek Recovery members are understandably concerned about the potential risks the City’s pollution poses to the health of Bear Creek, the Molalla River, and the community. Under the Clean Water Act, individual citizens or groups may bring an action against an alleged violator, to protect the waters they care about and depend upon. This lawsuit is about ordinary citizens standing up for their right to clean water.

Molalla River. Courtesy of Luteguy

After repeated violations of the law, the City of Molalla must be held accountable. It’s time for the City to comply with its permit and create a facility that can adequately treat sewage, without harming the environment.

History

In 2006, Crag worked with a coalition of parties to sue the City over the sewage treatment plant water quality violations. That suit resulted in a consent decree—an enforceable order of the court—requiring the City to comply with its permit and the Clean Water Act. The decree expired in 2009, and its pattern of violations continued.

Since then, Bear Creek Recover has consistently been in contact with DEQ staff regarding the City’s violations. Although the DEQ warned Molalla on several occasions, it failed to take any formal action to enforce the law.  We filed a complaint on behalf of Bear Creek Recovery in March 2014 to hold the City of Molalla accountable for years of alleged Clean Water Act violations from the sewage treatment plant. The lawsuit sought a resolution to the poor maintenance and operation of the sewage plant and failing infrastructure.

In September 2015, we secured federal court approval of an agreement to settle the lawsuit. The agreement was the result of over eight months of negotiations between the City and Bear Creek Recovery in an effort to resolve the issue outside the courtroom. The settlement required substantial work by the City over the next three and a half years to better manage its sewage wastewater and to improve current operating conditions at the treatment facility. As part of the agreement, the City committed $250,000 to remove a buildup of sewage sludge from the facility’s treatment lagoons and to inspect and repair failing sewer lines throughout the City. The agreement also required the City to conduct additional monitoring and management of its recycled water irrigation practices on nearby fields.

We continue to work with Bear Creek Recovery to ensure that the City complies with the terms of the agreement and its Clean Water Act permit.

Team Effort

For five years, we have proudly represented Bear Creek Recovery, a group of local Molalla residents concerned about the City’s actions and the possible impacts to human health and water quality. Bear Creek Recovery members are hopeful that the additional restrictions and requirements included in the 2015 settlement will lead to long-term solutions to the City’s Clean Water Act violations and protect public health and the environment in the Molalla area.

Maura Fahey and Chris Winter are leading our work to protect water quality in the Molalla River. Staff Attorney Maura Fahey shared the importance of this case.

“This case is a prime example of the Clean Water Act at work. Where the regulating agency has failed to hold the City accountable for its violations, local residents have kept a close watch and are working to ensure that the City cleans up its act.”

We are committed to ensuring access to clean water, for the residents of Molalla and people across the Pacific Northwest.