When Brent Foster, head of Columbia Riverkeeper, walked out of a September meeting with the state Department of Environmental Quality's water gurus, he was furious.
"I've been attending these meetings with DEQ for years," he said, "and for the first time, I'm actually fed up."
Now, following the state's failure last month to meet enviros' demands-including monitoring industrial pollution in Oregon's waterways-Foster's water-quality group and other environmental organizations are forming the "DEQ reform project."
Their concern: Weakened water standards that they say will affect fish and the growing number of Oregonians who look to the Willamette River for drinking water.
If Gov. Ted Kulongoski's DEQ does not change its ways, Foster says, the groups are considering asking the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency to step in.
"At this point, they're better than DEQ-even under Bush," Foster says of EPA.
Greens point to what they say is a pattern of weakened pollution rules. Among them:
DEQ has proposed changing how it monitors toxic metals discharged to waterways, such as from factories. The result, critics say, is that polluters will find it easier to meet Oregon's water standards.
Previously, a discharge sample just had to do measurable harm to fish to be considered "toxic." Now, under a new DEQ rule, the state will no longer consider a water sample "toxic" unless it harms at least 25 percent of the fish exposed.
DEQ is issuing new water-clarity standards in response to pressure from paper mills. While in some cases the standards will get tougher, DEQ water-quality manager Bob Baumgartner acknowledges many of the state's clear streams will get murkier.
Baumgartner, like other DEQ managers, balks at the term "weakening," saying the agency lacks enough data to predict the effect of the rule changes.
That's another problem the enviros raise-the agency doesn't know how much pollution is going in waterways such as the Willamette because it doesn't require monitoring of areas just downstream of polluters' discharge, called "toxic mixing zones."
Earlier this year, state Sen. Charlie Ringo (D-Beaverton), head of the Senate Environment and Land Use Committee, asked during the legislative session whether DEQ was working on mapping the state's toxic mixing zones. The agency responded that they were "almost done" doing so.
But last month, the agency said they had no plans to do so, prompting a curt Sept. 23 letter from Ringo.
"If they have the information, then they should provide it," Ringo told WW. "If they don't have the information, then that's even more troubling."
Enviros say they just want better balance as DEQ formulates its rules.
Melissa Powers, a lawyer with Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, says in almost every dispute between industry and scientists, DEQ has sided with industry.
"At each step, [DEQ] is basically using the most lenient factor to yield the most lenient standard," she says.
DEQ's defenders say staff there are well-meaning but hampered by budget cuts, as well as Kulongoski's pro-business stance.
But the greens, including Riverkeeper, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Sierra Club and OSPIRG, are discussing whether to ask the feds for help.
The U.S. EPA is empowered to enforce the federal Clean Water Act, but the act allows it to delegate its authority to states. If those states can't fulfill their duties, the EPA can take that authority back.
In January, EPA released a report chiding DEQ's water-quality program for several problems, including a backlog of expired discharge permits, failure to monitor the effects of industrial water pollution, and a reliance on friendly agreements more than stiff penalties for industry rule-breakers.
EPA officials say they're happy with DEQ's recent progress.
"They're listening, and they're being receptive, as opposed to being defensive," says Mike Bussell, director of EPA's regional office of compliance and enforcement.
But Columbia Riverkeeper's Foster says even if it's unlikely that Bush's EPA would take over Oregon's water-quality program, it might be worth asking.
"For us to even ask for it, it would be hugely symbolic," he says.
Nick Budnick contributed reporting for this article.