PART ONE: A Brief History of Oregon’s Environmental & Regulatory Advocacy
CRISIS ON THE WILLAMETTE RIVER
The Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) was the first agency in the United States charged with protecting the environment and it became the cornerstone for future national legislation including the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948), and the national Clean Water Act (1972).
In 1938, Oregon voters, by a three-to-one margin, approved an initiative to regulate water pollution and to create an enforcement agency under the jurisdiction of the Oregon State Board of Health. Political pressure that led to the initiative had begun as early as the 1920s, when the Board of Health and others had expressed concerns about water pollution and its threats to human health. Rampant pollution had caused many devastating fish kills on the Willamette River the 1920s, and Portland often closed its part of the Willamette to swimming because of sewage in the water.
Since many of the biggest polluters were along the Willamette, OSSA focused its efforts there. Raw domestic sewage from cities and waste from pulp mills, paper mills and other industrial sites produced the greatest volumes of pollutants. By the late 1940s, OSSA had induced communities along the river to install sewage treatment plants. However, the agency had less success with mill owners, who resisted pollution controls on grounds of expense. Of particular concern were sulfite process mills that discharged plumes of waste that were deadly to many aquatic plants and animals. As late as 1969, low oxygen levels related to pollution were preventing upstream migration of salmon on the Willamette. Fish migration was able to continue only after Governor Tom McCall, the OSSA chairman, ordered the temporary closure of four sulfite mills along the river.
THE CREATION OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY (DEQ)
The Oregon legislature created the DEQ during Tom McCall’s second year as governor (1967-1975), one element of what some journalists called “the most extensive shake-up of state government” in Oregon history. For decades, the state had centralized its oversight of water and air quality and solid waste management. The Oregon State Sanitary Authority (1938) was responsible for water quality, and the Oregon Air Pollution Authority (1951) oversaw air quality; the Air Pollution Authority was made part of the OSSA in 1959. In 1967, McCall led efforts to strengthen the OSSA, and in early March 1969 his legislative allies, including Republican Senator Victor Atiyeh, proposed Senate Bill 396 to separate the Sanitary Authority from the State Board of Health and create a new agency. Overseeing the Department of Environmental Quality would be a five-member, governor-appointed citizen panel—the Environmental Quality Commission—which would establish policies and provide guidance for the agency’s day-to-day work. McCall agreed to the reorganization and signed the bill on June 16, 1969. The late 1960s in the United States was a time of increased public attention on environmental issues and the need to strengthen environmental laws, and the creation of the DEQ put Oregon at the forefront in translating public sentiment into an effective regulatory and administrative framework. In early 1969, President Richard Nixon named McCall, conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, and aviator Charles Lindbergh to his Citizens Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality to provide input on what became the National Environmental Policy Act. In October 1969, David D. Dominick of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration called Oregon’s water pollution program among the most progressive and effective in the nation. In effect, Oregon’s environmental laws provided examples for federal legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972) and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970).
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