August 18th, 2008 5:33 pm | by BETH SLOVIC News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Politics, Environment

Updated: Smith Frozen Foods Repeats Water-Quality Violation

CreekWith new comment from Smith Frozen Foods attorney Tom Lindley and Sen. Gordon Smith's spokeswoman below.

For the second time in about a year, wastewater from the frozen-foods plant owned and operated in Eastern Oregon by the family of U.S. Sen Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) overflowed into a nearby creek in violation of state environmental regulations.

Smith Frozen Foods, a multimillion dollar operation, processes peas, corn, carrots and lima beans for companies like Campbell Soup using heavy amounts of water to move and wash the fresh vegetables.

The timing of the plant's wastewater overflow into Pine Creek couldn't be worse for Smith, who's waging a tough re-election campaign to keep his seat in Washington, D.C.

Smith Frozen Foods has a long history of wastewater violations. And Oregon Democrats (including U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who narrowly defeated Smith in the 1996 special Senate election after pointing to Smith's environmental record at the company) will no doubt highlight the company's transgressions again this election season.

According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, an employee of Smith Frozen Foods contacted the state agency on July 29 (while the plant was processing corn) to report an incident overflow from the company's wastewater lagoon that "resulted in a milky discharge to Pine Creek." The plant — located in tiny Weston, Ore. — responded by placing portable pumps in the creek to remove the contaminated water, the DEQ says. On Aug. 4, the company submitted a "corrective action" plan to the DEQ, listing its efforts to clean the spill, prevent future ones and investigate the cause of the July 29 overflow.

Nonetheless, the incident is considered a serious "Class 1" violation, meaning it "can harm aquatic life, contaminate drinking waters, and impair recreational, commercial and agricultural uses of water." Because the case is still open, the violation has not yet resulted in any fine.

On July 30, 2007, at the height of last year's corn season, Smith Frozen Foods had a similar violation. That violation resulted in a $3,000 fine — a small sum compared with the $25,000 DEQ fine in 1992 for another infraction. Between those two events, Smith Frozen Foods has been cited or fined by the DEQ more than a handful times.

A voicemail message left with Kelly Brown, a manager of Smith Frozen Foods, was not immediately returned.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Gordon Smith, who ran the plant in the late 1980s before turning it over to his wife Sharon Smith when he first took office in the Oregon Senate in 1992, also did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Update at 5 pm Monday: Spokeswoman Lindsay Gilbride referred questions to Smith Frozen Foods.

Update at 10 am Tuesday: Tom Lindley, an attorney for Smith Frozen Foods at Perkins Coie in Portland, says "overflow" is the wrong word to describe the discharge of polluted water into Pine Creek. But at this point, company officials do not know for certain how the incident occurred. Also, they do not know for sure how much wastewater was released into the creek. But they suspect it was about 5 to 20 gallons. Their "best guess" about what happened is complicated. Here's what Lindley said: Husks and cobs from the corn processed at the plant are ground down to make feed for cattle. Somewhere in this process water may have dripped from the husks and the cobs near where the husks and cobs were being loaded into trucks outside the plant. This water may have made its way into an old storm drain that runs into the creek. Engineers with Smith Frozen Foods are looking into the case, Lindley says. And if that's what happened, the old storm drain will be redirected to the company's wastewater system, he says.

"The critical thing is it was self reported within minutes of discovery," Lindley says. "It was a small quantity that was immediately stopped."

[Top photo: Pine Creek. Photo above: Weston, Ore., population 701.]
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