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Suit claims Medford treatment plant polluting Rogue

Water-quality advocates filed suit Monday to force the city of Medford to clean water discharged into the Rogue River by its sewage-treatment plant, alleging the city has known for five years that its releases illegally harm the Rogue’s aquatic balance but failed to fix it.

The Northwest Environmental Advocates claims three studies — including one funded by the city — since 2013 show nutrient levels cause unnatural algae and aquatic weed growth, damage underwater insects and at times create a sudsy, smelly plume on the river.

Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Medford, the suit seeks to force the city to stop “sliming” the Rogue in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and start removing more nitrogen and phosphorus from treated water before it’s discharged.

“They need to remove the nutrient pollution that everybody believes is the source of the pollution,” NWEA Executive Director Nina Bell said.

Bell said Medford’s “sit-on-your-hands approach” to dealing with the plant’s discharge problems has been “a disservice to its rate-payers and the environment.”

Bell also chided the state Department of Environmental Quality for “essentially protecting Medford” by not holding the city accountable for discharge pollutants since they were documented by the studies.

The suit also seeks civil penalties of more than $52,000 a day for violations, ban the city from further alleged permit violations and clean up environmental damage to the river downstream of the plant off Kirtland Road downstream of TouVelle State Park.

NWEA sent the city its required 60-day notice of its intent to sue in October, and entered negotiations with the city before filing suit.

Medford Public Works Director Cory Crebbin said he was unaware the suit had been filed and could not comment on it.

“As far as I knew, we were still in negotiations,” Crebbin said.

DEQ is not a party to the lawsuit and is not in a position to comment on it, agency spokeswoman Katherine Benenati said in an email.

The city’s wastewater permit expired in 2016, but it operates under an extension until the permit is renewed, Benenati said.

The city is in compliance with the conditions of its administratively extended permit, Benenati said.

Commissioned by a consortium of fishing groups including the Medford-based Rogue FlyFishers Association, the 2013 study asserts that the effluent’s impact extends close to a mile farther downstream than allowed under the city’s 2011 operating permit.

The altered ecosystem not only affects desired insects that feed the Rogue’s fish, it could harm chinook salmon eggs laid in gravel downstream of the treatment plant near TouVelle State Park, the study states.

The city’s permit provides a pollution exemption immediately below the outfall pipe, but state law requires that water quality elsewhere in the Rogue must be managed to protect designated “beneficial uses,” which include fish and aquatic life.

The study looks at insect and plant life outside the 300-foot stretch of the Rogue immediately downstream of the discharge pipe. That area is defined as the “mixing zone,” or allotted space where wastewater can mix thoroughly with river flows.

While the permit exempts water quality and beneficial-use standards inside the mixing zone, the permit requires that they be met outside of that zone.

The study states that the heavy algae and plant growth measured 10 times higher downstream of the mixing zone than at the first riffle upstream of the discharge pipe in a part of the Rogue not directly impacted by those discharges.

Underwater gravels in the upstream sites sported nine subspecies of stoneflies but just one on the lower site four-tenths of a mile below the outflow, showing what the study states “is another strong indicator of water quality impairment.”

A DEQ study in late 2013 and a city-funded study in 2014 both noted conditions downstream of the outfall were less healthy than water immediately upstream, according to the suit.

During the original 2013 study conducted by retired DEQ entomologist Rick Hafele, Hafele noted the presence of foam from the treated effluent traveling on the surface past the mixing zone, which is not allowed under the DEQ permit, the study states.

The suit does not ask Medford to stop discharging water while the case plays out in court.

“It’s not like they can stop treating sewage,” Bell said.

John MacDiarmid, the Rogue FlyFishers member who instigated Hafele’s study, said he was “really looking forward” to better water-quality in that reach of the Rogue.

“There’s no doubt about it,” MacDiarmid said. “This river is getting whacked and whacked hard. It (improvements) are moving too slow, but it’s moving now.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

John MacDiarmid picks up a rock out of the Rogue River near Medford’s wastewater treatment plant Wednesday.Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch