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Tests find no heavy metals in Evans Creek

Water in Evans Creek is free of dangerous levels of heavy metals after all, according to a controversial report that cost Josephine County taxpayers $77,000.

Water from the creek flows into the Rogue River, upstream of Grants Pass, near the city of Rogue River.

"There's not a problem with the water, and there's no problem with the sediment," Cherryl Walker, chairwoman of the Josephine County Board of Commissioners, told the Daily Courier Friday.

Commissioners had commissioned the report in November after concerns were raised about heavy metals reportedly found in August in the creek near the former site of Fielder Dam, located about three miles up the creek from its confluence with the Rogue River. That's in Jackson County.

As it turns out, none of the contaminants that were allegedly detected in August were detected in November, the report states.

The report was written by Shannon & Wilson, an environmental consulting company in Seattle, at the request of Grants Pass Water Laboratory. Last August, about the time Fielder and Wimer dams on the creek were removed, the lab reported arsenic, barium, copper and nickle exceeding state "human health criteria," according to the report.

After lab owner Eric Schaafsma presented his findings to the Board of Commissioners last fall, they awarded him a contract that they cancelled a few weeks later, after critics raised objections and after state tests reportedly indicated no threat to Josephine County's drinking water.

Despite the contract cancellation, the county still paid $77,000 for work done under the contract.

"It was reviewed by our public health department to ensure the work was done," county Finance Director Arthur O'Hare explained Friday. "They legitimately did $77,000 worth of work. We do have whatever benefit from that report."

Walker defended the county's action.

"The benefit will be we have the baseline," she said. "If anything ever comes from any toxins or biological harm, no one will be able to point to that as an issue. Fortunately we have that baseline now (in case) somebody tries to blame something on the Fielder Dam."

Walker said the contract was cancelled after a state toxicologist said there was no need for further testing.

"I don't have any regrets," she said. "I make decisions on the best information I had at the time. We did the best we could."

The irrigation dams had not been in use in decades and were removed to improve fish habitat and access to upper reaches of the creek. Sediment had settled behind the dams, nearly to their tops.

According to a 2014 report prepared for the Army Corps of Engineers by River Design Group of Corvallis, prior to the removal of the dams, there was little concern about contamination from backed-up sediment.

"Chemical analysis for other dams in Evans Creek and on the Rogue River near Fielder and Wimer dam sites found little or no evidence of contaminants," River Design Group stated in its 2014 report to the Corps. "It is expected that the Fielder and Wimer dam sediments will not have contaminants."

That has now proven to be true, based on November's test results.

"Water chemistry testing completed by (Grants Pass Water Laboratory) in August 2015 detected the presence of arsenic, barium, copper and nickle … in exceedance of ODEQ human health criteria," Shannon & Wilson reported. "However, none of the contaminants detected in exceedance of ODEQ water quality during the August 2015 sampling event were detected in exceedance of ODEQ water quality requirements during the November 2015 event."

Shannon & Wilson stated the source of the contaminants detected in August was unknown. It suggested further monitoring.

Last summer's removal of Fielder Dam on Evans Creek near Rogue River was opposed by adjacent property owners Steve and Sharon Keeton, who filed an unsuccessful court action to block the demolition work.

In early August, a Keeton family member reportedly sat on an access road to the site, delaying heavy equipment for three hours until Jackson County sheriff's deputies and Oregon State Police arrived.

Subsequently, the Oath Keepers of Josephine County arrived on the scene, along with former state Rep. Gordon Anderson, questioning permits and asking for sediment sampling.

One argument against removal, by local resident and self-described environmental specialist Alan Ehr, was that potentially harmful sediments, including heavy metals and arsenic, could be unleashed downstream.

But after the county Board of Commissioners agreed to a $135,000 contract in November for water testing and monitoring, Laurie Johansen of the Jerome Prairie area decided to have a few tests done herself.

She collected water samples and took them to Kimberly Ramsay at Neilson Research Corporation, another water testing lab. Johansen told the commissioners she paid $114 to test all three samples and that Ramsay and her team did not find dangerous traces of arsenic in the water, counter to claims by Grants Pass Water Laboratory owner Eric Schaafsma prior to himself being awarded the $135,000 contract. Johansen also told commissioners that Ramsay offered to test water at the Grants Pass Filtration Plant once a week for the next year at no charge. Ramsay later confirmed Johansen's account.