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EPA investigator visits landfill, sanitary district in wake of leachate problem that killed treatment plant's 'bugs'

Special Agent Eric Martenson of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division visited Douglas County on July 10 and asked questions about an incident involving Douglas County Landfill leachate, according to several local officials and a property owner adjacent to the landfill.

During his visit, Martenson visited Douglas County government officials, the Green Sanitary District and the Douglas County Landfill and sought information about an April 26 incident in which landfill leachate with high levels of ammonia virtually wiped out the good bacteria, or “bugs,” that treat wastewater at the Winston-Green Wastewater Treatment Plant.

However, Martenson’s supervisor Ted Owens, assistant special agent in charge for the Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska region, said the EPA Criminal Investigation Division cannot comment on whether or not a specific investigation is taking place. Speaking generally about the agency’s mission, Owens said the criminal division is tasked with investigating knowing or negligent violations of environmental laws. If it finds sufficient evidence of criminal action, it passes that information on to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

Winston-Green Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Chris Sherlock said Martenson visited Green Sanitary on July 10, and his questions were specific to the April 26 incident.

“His focus was on possible criminal investigation regarding the leachate brought to us on April 26th. His questions indicated he was investigating the incident and not a specific person or entity at the time I talked to him,” Sherlock said.

Victor Petrucci, who owns a parcel of land adjacent to the county landfill, said Martenson also visited his property and took pictures of the landfill.

Petrucci has been in a long-running battle with the county over his own allegations that landfill leachate has been leaking out, polluting a creek that runs through his land and pours into the South Umpqua River a short distance from his property.

County officials admitted that happened once in 2017 when a pump failed during heavy rains, but said it was an isolated incident. The county had in the past collected leachate in a series of treatment ponds, which overflowed during heavy rains, but currently pumps leachate into a large holding tank.

Petrucci continues to maintain that pollution from the landfill leachate is making its way to the river.

“It’s terrible what’s in that stuff and they’re putting that in the river where people swim and eat fish and there’s kids that go down there,” Petrucci said.

Petrucci’s conflict with the county has resulted in some legal battles. He pleaded guilty to burglary in 2018 after he damaged an air conditioning unit at a county building while placing audio devices there. He performed community service in Winston, where he is a member of the Winston Planning Commission. A trespassing charge was also brought against him, but was dismissed.

Martenson’s visit here appears to have been a response to a June 7 letter from Petrucci’s attorney, Ted A. Martin of Portland. The letter was addressed to Douglas County Counsel Paul Meyer, but copies were sent to multiple federal and state officials.

In it, Martin took the county to task.

“How can the County take the position — as it did in Mr. Petrucci’s recent Burglary prosecution — that the leachate waste effluent is safe AND that it is hazardous — as it did at the public meeting?” Martin wrote.

The public meeting in question was between Winston City Council and Green Sanitary District at the end of May. Winston and Green Sanitary are co-owners of the treatment plant.

In a recording of that meeting, Winston-Green officials can be heard expressing concern about a potential lawsuit from Petrucci, and one woman can be heard saying she thought Petrucci was right.

The Winston-Green officials at that meeting asked county government officials to prepare a “hold harmless” clause that would ensure the county would cover any costs related to future landfill leachate problems.

Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice said he also met with Martenson, the EPA investigator. However, Boice said Martenson told him he felt his visit had been a waste of time.

“What he said was that he’s really not that interested in chasing fairy tales and unicorns, and that’s what he felt like this is,” Boice said.

Boice said he believes that’s the end of any investigation.

Boice said leachate testing is done both internally by county staff and externally by independent labs. The frequency of the tests varies depending on the results of previous tests and ranges from daily to weekly, he said.

County Public Works Director Scott Adams has previously explained the high-ammonia leachate problem at the end of April was caused by wells being drilled by the Stellar J company, which collects methane from the landfill to convert into electricity.

Sherlock, the Winston-Green plant superintendent, said the county has been hauling its leachate to the plant for 10 years without problems, and the two organizations have worked together to effectively treat the leachate.

“There has been no reason to believe that the county has been anything but honest and above-board to us throughout our working relationship,” Sherlock said.

While Winston and Green obtain their drinking water higher upstream than the treatment plant, Elkton is several miles downstream. So far, City Manager Gary Trout said they’ve seen no problems. If increased pollution from the die-off of the Winston-Green bugs had reached them, it would likely have led to an increase in algae, he said, but that hasn’t happened.

Trout said annual tests are performed for volatile organic chemicals and nitrates, and haven’t indicated problems in the past. The next testing is coming up next month, he said.

Developing relationships, sense of community at PartnerSports Camps

Swimming, golf, tennis, basketball, soccer, hiking, fishing and taekwondo are among the activities children attending PartnerSports Camp are participating in this summer.

Approximately 70 children signed up for the two-week camp, which is split almost evenly between children with disabilities and partners charged with assisting them.

“Partners come and they have no idea what kind of disability their camper will have,” said staff member Susan Acree. “To see them interact throughout the camp, it’s amazing the relationships they’re able to develop.”

Tyler Ott was partnered with Sage Villa, and on Tuesday afternoon the two of them, along with the rest of the campers, learned to play golf. They started off putting on the green at Stewart Park Golf Course, before making their way over to the driving range. In another area of the course, campers tried a chipping challenge where they tried to get a golf ball inside a hula hoop.

It was Sage’s fourth time volunteering as a partner for the camp.

“I heard about it through school,” she said. “It’s helping the community and it’s fun.”

Tyler said, “My parents didn’t want me and my brothers to be bored this summer.”

There’s not much time for boredom at the PartnerSports camp. The camp runs on a tight schedule for each activity, including road trips.

Sage was looking forward to hiking, while Treyson Cooper said he was most looking forward to fishing. He participated in the camp last year and was unable to catch a fish, but is hoping to do better next Tuesday at Bowman Pond.

“I suck at fishing, but we also get s’mores,” Treyson elaborated.

Several other campers enjoyed the daily swim at YMCA of Douglas County pool.

The camp is coordinated by the Douglas Education Service District and YMCA of Douglas County.

“They’re all encouraging one another,” Acree said.

PartnerSports was started 14 years ago as Camp Shriver, named after Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a huge supporter of the Special Olympics. It was one of six camps in the nation, but the only on the West Coast despite the fact that Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s son-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California at the time.

Less than expected state funds for allied health college won't deter Roseburg from support

The City of Roseburg will remain a funding partner for a proposed allied and mental health college despite the project receiving less money from the Oregon State Legislature than city officials hoped, they said.

This month, the legislature approved $10 million for the college, which will offer bachelor’s and advanced degrees in nursing, counseling, physical therapy and other fields. Funds needed to establish the college are about $30 million, according to Wayne Patterson, executive director of the Umpqua Economic Development Partnership.

The City Council signed a memorandum of understanding with Oregonians for Rural Health, the lead organization for the project, committing funds of up to $10 million in May.

With the legislature and the city on board, the process of securing at least one-third of the funds needed to establish the college is just beginning, Patterson said.

People lobbying the legislature initially requested $15-20 million for the project, according to city documents. The agreement between the city and ORH was contingent upon legislative funding of more than $10 million. But city officials are confident ORH will obtain the remaining funds, and they don’t think city support greater than $10 million will be necessary.

“Would we have liked $20 million, of course, would we have liked $15 million, absolutely, but the $10 million puts us on board with the project, which is a game-changer for the entire city,” said City Council President Tom Ryan. “They wanted a city government to be responsible for the project.”

The city’s support was also contingent on the college’s academic partner, George Fox University, agreeing to a long-term, triple-net-lease for the college’s building, which, when constructed, would be owned by the city.

The college’s location and the terms of the lease haven’t been solidified yet, said interim City Manager Nikki Messenger. ORH recently submitted a site plan review pre-application conference document to the city for an 80,000-square-foot parcel south of CHI Mercy Medical Center near the Roseburg Regional Airport.

The project’s partners are working to identify grants and loans the city could use to contribute up to $10 million, Messenger said. The lease with George Fox would need to cover all city debt costs for the contribution, city officials said.

“The city won’t be on the hook for any money,” Ryan said. “That was important to us.”

The city isn’t obligated to pay more than $10 million, even if the project’s partners don’t secure the remaining one-third in funding, he said, but the City Council would decide what to do collectively.

“We haven’t had a final vote on it, but if it ends up being the way I think it is, the city isn’t going to have any liability,” Ryan said. “It’s not going to cost taxpayers anything.”

Since 2013, the city has contributed $70,000 to the project, including two economic feasibility studies. Additionally, the city agreed in April to abate at least $400,000 in systems development charges for the construction of the college.

“It’s a major milestone to get that funding (from the legislature),” Messenger said. “It’s just not a complete package yet.”

Patterson said ORH is aggressively pursuing grants from private and public entities, including both state and federal sources.

“We’re just getting started,” he said. “Our plan, once we have all the funding opportunities that we have on the table, whatever that last remaining amount was, if any, then we would go to the city and say, ‘We need you to pick up whatever that small or stopgap amount is.’”

Messenger said the city has invited the project’s partners to speak to the City Council at its meeting on July 22.