A pipe carrying treated wastewater from the Hollingsworth & Vose glass fiber plant broke on Christmas Eve, dumping an unknown amount of effluent into the Willamette River near downtown Corvallis before the problem was detected and the flow shut off.
The spill was downstream from the city’s drinking water intake, and state environmental regulators say there’s no reason to suspect the incident posed a threat to human health or the environment.
Hollingsworth & Vose operates a factory at 1115 S.E. Crystal Lake Drive, where it produces glass fiber for battery separator membranes, air filtration systems and other specialty applications.
Treated wastewater from the manufacturing process, including glass filaments and other suspended solids, is piped under the Willamette River to settling ponds on the east bank. The solid material settles to the bottom and the liquid effluent is released into the river under a permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
The effluent also contains trichloroethylene, or TCE. An unknown quantity of the toxic chemical was spilled at the plant more than 20 years ago, and a system of wells has been set up to extract the substance for treatment and disposal. TCE is a highly volatile compound that evaporates quickly in the open air.
According to Robert Dicksa of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the break in the wastewater pipe was discovered sometime on Dec. 24 by H&V personnel conducting daily monitoring of the system.
“They shut things down immediately once things were discovered,” Dicksa said.
He said he wasn’t sure how long wastewater flowed through the pipe before the system was shut down or how much effluent was released directly into the Willamette. But he pointed out that the process wastewater is treated before being pumped to the settling ponds.
The same is true for the TCE extracted by the on-site pump and treat system, said Seth Sadofsky, the DEQ employee who oversees the toxic waste cleanup program at the H&V plant. He said the TCE in the treated wastewater would be at “pretty low levels” that would be expected to dissipate rapidly after entering the Willamette.
“It will come out of the river relatively quickly,” Sadofsky said. “It’s not like metals or PCBs or some of the other contaminants people worry about.”
Based on what he’s been told by H&V officials, Dicksa said, he doesn’t think the spill created any human or environmental health hazards. He has asked the company to give him a full report on the incident.
“If they followed all their protocols and responded immediately upon discovery, I would say no, there is no immediate threat to human health or the environment,” he said.
Cindy Frost, the manager of H&V’s Corvallis plant, declined to be interviewed about the incident. Instead, in response to a list of written questions from the Gazette-Times, the company issued a four-paragraph statement.
“When the problem was discovered through an established inspection process, the company curtailed production and stopped using the pipe; the system was secured and the pipe was physically blocked,” the statement reads in part. “The damage to the pipe likely occurred as a result of debris in the river during the recent high water conditions.”
The statement goes on to say that the pipe was fixed on Sunday and is now back in use. In the interim, the company used tanker trucks to transport process water to the settling ponds.
Altogether, the statement says, the problem has cost the company $483,000 so far.
But the statement leaves some questions unanswered, including how long the pipe may have been broken before the problem was detected and exactly how much effluent was released into the river.
Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, said he’s troubled by the lack of detailed information on that point.
“It makes it difficult to calculate the amount of potential impact to the river,” he said.
The nonprofit environmental watchdog group threatened to sue H&V under the Clean Water Act in 2014 over the years-long accumulation of glass fiber in and around the company’s settling ponds. But Riverkeeper agreed to drop the suit after the company cleaned up the area and took steps to prevent material from washing into the river during high water.
Williams said he believes H&V is working diligently to manage its waste responsibly, but he’s concerned that the company is continuing to operate under an out-of-date wastewater discharge permit. The company’s permit expired in 2008, but the DEQ made an administrative decision allowing it to continue discharging treated wastewater under the same conditions after H&V applied for a renewal.
That’s standard practice for the DEQ, which has hundreds of expired permits awaiting renewal, according to Dicksa. Williams acknowledges that the agency has made some progress on reducing its backlog, but he argues it’s important for citizens to get a chance to weigh in on the discharge permits, which are supposed to be renewed every five years.
“It sort of betrays the idea of the public process,” he said of the administrative permit renewals.
“It doesn’t allow the public to consider reauthorizing a permit or adding new technology or information or ideas that we might want to incorporate,” he added. “There’s a reason that there was a permit starting point and a permit ending point, and it’s that we could take another look at these permits and work to improve them over time.”
DEQ recently announced a $240,000 settlement with H&V over the company’s air emissions permit. The agency disclosed in December that it had allowed the plant to operate under the wrong class of permit for nearly 20 years and that the plant had been emitting much higher levels of carbon monoxide and fluorides than the permit allowed.
The permit was issued based on faulty air emissions modeling data submitted by Evanite Fiber Corp., the plant’s previous owner, and the problem went undetected until 2014 because the permit did not require testing for those pollutants. Testing was performed at that time because H&V was seeking a renewal of its permit.