Water commission fined $278,000 for chlorine release

State says chemical level was harmful to fish; commission says problem has been fixed

State health officials have fined the Medford Water Commission $278,794 for discharging fish-killing levels of chlorinated water into Lone Pine Creek.

Chlorine is toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and the state Department of Environmental Quality determined the creek is mostly devoid of fish. The water commission has released high levels of chlorine from the Capital Hill Reservoir in east Medford for 150 days a year, according to state officials.

The DEQ levied the fine Nov. 30; the water commission board has 20 days to file an appeal.

Jon Gasik, senior engineer for the DEQ, said the amount of chlorine in the creek water measured 50 times more than allowed by the DEQ in fish-bearing streams.

"While we can drink it no problem, fish can't live in it," Gasik said, noting that even home aquarium owners are informed that chlorine must be removed from their tanks' water before fish are placed in the aquariums.

In 1997, the DEQ instituted stricter rules on the discharge of chlorinated water to streams. In determining its fine, the DEQ estimated the water commission had saved $192,000 by not installing a dechlorination system in 1997.

The problem with the water release, which originated in an overflow system from the reservoir, was fixed by the water commission over the summer. Laura Hodnett, spokeswoman for the commission, said the commission intended to appeal and would not discuss specifics of the case until after the appeal.

The DEQ found that although the creek was damaged, an analysis by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife indicates it could become a productive fish habitat in the future. Lone Pine, which flows through east Medford and past the airport on the north side of the city, is a tributary of Bear Creek.

Gasik said the problem water was discovered by fish and wildlife officials on March 1 when they were attempting to rehabilitate a lower portion of the creek, considered steelhead spawning habitat.

Gasik said a letter was sent to the water commission on April 8.

This will be the first season chlorine-free water will be discharged into the creek, he said.

Gasik said that from December through February, the water commission released about 5 million gallons a day into the creek from the reservoir because customer demand drops during the winter months. During November and March, the commission released a lesser amount of water.

The water that feeds into the tank located near the intersection of Valley View Drive and Capital Avenue comes from Big Butte Springs in the Cascade Mountains 30 miles east of Medford.

Gasik said the DEQ sent notices to all water agencies in 1997, warning them about the new regulations.

The water commission installed dechlorination systems at its treatment plant near the Rogue River as a result of the notices.

"It's a puzzlement that they weren't dechlorinating the other water at the reservoir," he said.

Because the water commission intends to appeal, it won't release much information regarding why the chlorinated water was being discharged into the creek, said Hodnett, the commission's spokeswoman.

Chlorine is a disinfectant added at Big Butte Springs to ensure the safety of the drinking water that flows to the city through two pipelines from the springs.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.


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