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June 22nd, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

THE CASE OF THE FECAL PHYSICIAN

Trailer-park doc tops the DEQ deadbeat list.

     
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IMAGE: BWANA SPOONS
The state Department of Environmental Quality budget approved last week by the Oregon House slashed $800,000 intended for cleanup of the Willamette River.

But about 40 percent of that cut could have been restored by tapping Dr. Caleb Siaw, who tops the DEQ list for uncollected debt and who has figured out a novel way to avoid paying his $317,000 fine.

The 67-year-old doctor ran mobile-home parks from Portland for years, and records show he soon developed a specialty in sewage-specifically, in how not to handle it.

While Shaw owned a Clackamas trailer park in 1995 and 1996, DEQ found nine months of raw sewage spills from a faulty septic system, including paper and latex products still lying in the yard. One resident had to put a weight over his shower drain to keep raw sewage from seeping up the drain.

Similar problems turned up starting in 1998 at another of Shaw's trailer parks, Forest Lake Resort in Clatsop County. For instance, a woman complained that raw sewage was pooling near her 9-year-old's play area and swing.

The DEQ told Shaw not to handle the work himself and to get a permit. Instead, he used a backhoe to build sewage trenches and a garden hose to pump sewage directly from a septic tank to the bank of the Necanicum River-just upstream from Seaside's drinking-water inflow.

Tests of one woman's lot discovered extremely high levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria-causing risk of gastrointestinal illness. But sewage continued to pond in her yard-so much that, as one DEQ email said, "ducks were swimming in it."

"Bob, what can I do about this situation?" one DEQ employee wrote a superior in March 1998. "Somebody is going to get seriously sick!"

Later that year, Siaw was slapped with a criminal felony water-pollution charge. Such charges are unusual, says Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, but "people literally were walking out of their doors into raw sewage." Was the physician remorseful about endangering his tenants? "Not at all," says Marquis.

Siaw signed a plea deal requiring he take steps to resolve the problem. He didn't do enough. Notified of continued sewage leaks, fecal material and toilet paper turning up on his residents' property, Siaw's wife, Brenda, told DEQ a contractor had taken care of the problems. The contractor she named told DEQ that was untrue.

Siaw's wife then told DEQ that her husband was leaving for Guam to become a missionary, and later that he'd had a stroke, and they could not pay for cleanup due to medical bills.

Siaw twice told DEQ he'd sold his trailer park to others, and claimed the ownership transfer meant he no longer had to fulfill the terms of the cleanup agreement. In neither case did the sale go through, and DEQ suspected the transfer was a scam-"he'll get DEQ to back off from enforcement again, by pretending to sell," one DEQ staffer wrote to a colleague.

Indeed, documents show the payment terms of one such sale, for $900,000, were so lenient that the contract would never pay out: The buyer made payments of only $48,000 a year even as debt mounted thanks to annual interest of $64,000. In January 2003, the state Environmental Quality Commission upheld a fine DEQ levied against Siaw for $317,700.

Siaw, now retired and living in Boring, declined comment to WW's questions. But last year he told the Statesman-Journal in Salem, "I don't have the wherewithal to pay," adding that "I try not to lose much sleep" over the unpaid debt.

Siaw owned at least nine pieces of property around Oregon-including two in Portland, according to a database search. So DEQ placed liens on several of them. But collections efforts by a private agency and the Oregon Department of Revenue bore no fruit.

Last month, Siaw's attorney told DEQ that all his property had been transferred to a trust for inheritance purposes-making it "exempt from garnishment, lien...or collection enforcement actions by the DEQ."

"Trusts create collections problems for us, absolutely," says Anne Price, DEQ's enforcement director. DEQ has agreed to remove its liens, but the agency is not giving up, having last week asked the Oregon Department of Justice to look at the case to see whether it can pierce Siaw's trusts. Last month, Siaw sold a piece of property in Albany for $500,000.

 
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