Years of pollution have made the Willamette the dirtiest river in the West. The stretch from the Fremont Bridge to the Columbia River has been declared a Superfund site. Now two river watchdogs are growling at 20 local polluters and negligent industries, threatening to take the miscreants to court unless they clean up their act.

The Willamette and Columbia Riverkeepers have sent notices to industrial operations, housing sites and even local governments, warning them they may be sued for violations such as dumping sewage into the Columbia River and letting metals leach into waterways.

The violators have already received warnings from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, but the Riverkeepers are backing that up with a threat of a federal lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, which carries much heavier penalties--up to $25,000 a day.

"This is a message to say, 'You may not have been scared of DEQ in the past, but someone else is watching,'" says the Riverkeepers' attorney, Brent Foster.

Some offenders have a long history with the DEQ. For example, EC Gravel, an aggregate mine company based in Eagle Creek, has not complied with state monitoring requirements. In almost three years, DEQ has received none of the legally required information on the wastewater EC Gravel routinely dumps into a tributary of the Clackamas River, raising questions about whether pollution could be killing off endangered salmon in the watershed.

Other violators include Heller & Heller Construction and Pacific Cascade in Columbia County; the City of Portland; and the City of Scappoose.

Many of the problems have gotten out of control because DEQ has neither the staff nor the budget to keep all of the facilities honest. All the stormwater inspections on the 600-plus sites in Northwest Oregon are performed by one DEQ engineer, Dennis Jurries. "You get a bunch of them that work to get up to speed," says Jurries, "and some who just ignore you."