The Willamette River is in dire straits. I know it, you know it and everybody knows it. Not surprisingly, everybody would like to see it cleaned up. As the elections approach, we are presented with an opportunity to solve this problem by making our gubernatorial candidates have a plan to deal with this very important issue.
The situation is bad and the urgency is transparent. Two-thirds of the population of Oregon live along this river, and in many places it is not even safe enough for swimming. I’d like to emphasize that, in many places, including right here in our town, it is unsafe, unhealthy and an all-around risky proposition to let the water of Oregon’s most central natural resource come into prolonged contact with your skin. This is a big, big problem.
Fortunately, the solution doesn’t require any new legislation. A resolution can be easily reached with the laws already in place.
The obvious first step is to curb new toxic pollution in the river. When the Clean Water Act was first passed in 1972, its stated goal was to eliminate toxic discharges entirely by 1985. As it stands, almost 4 million pounds of new pollution go into the Willamette each year. The good news is, the Clean Water Act can still be a valuable tool for reducing pollution by reducing new permits and lowering the limits of toxic discharges. This is an important first step, but these legislative actions don’t mean much if they don’t have teeth.
The legal ceiling we’ve set for pollution in our river is already shockingly high. For example, two companies (Wah Chang and Wacker Siltronic) dump more than a million pounds of pollution into the river each year.
Polluters that break these already generous permits must be held accountable for the damage they cause. If the financial consequences of polluting reflected the damage it causes to our communities, polluters would be motivated to curb these toxic emissions.
As it stands, it’s cheaper for corporations to break their permits and accept the fines than it is to solve the problem and stop breaking the laws. Toxic cleanup is expensive. We must decide now whether this burden will be passed along to the already overburdened taxpayer, or whether we will follow a fundamental principle and hold the responsible parties accountable for cleaning up their own mess. Yes, that’s right, the public must take the shocking and controversial position that if you make a mess, you should clean it up yourself.
Oregon’s next governor will have important decisions to make, and he won’t be making these decisions in a vacuum. We need a governor with a plan of action. I urge you to vote accordingly.
Matthew Wallace is a PSU junior in philosophy.