Environmental Group Sues DEQ Over Poor Water Quality in Ross Island Lagoon

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center says the state erred in issuing a permit to allow Ross Island Sand & Gravel to continue refilling the Willamette River bottom.

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center filed a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on April 10 in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit seeks reconsideration of a permit DEQ issued to Ross Island Sand & Gravel in 2022 that would allow the company to continue the now 40-year process of refilling parts of the lagoon in Ross Island, in central Portland, where the company mined gravel from 1926 through 2001.

The reclamation requires a DEQ permit ensuring the work meets water quality standards, and the lawsuit says DEQ should not have issued the 2022 permit (the permits must be renewed every five years.) “The certification is unlawful, because it fails to ensure that the water quality in the Willamette River will be maintained during the reclamation activities,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit goes on to say that DEQ improperly issued the permit “in contravention of state and federal water quality protection laws, is insufficient to protect aquatic resources and water quality, and is harmful to the state and each of its citizens.” (Ross Island Sand & Gravel, which is part of R.B. Pamplin Corp., is not a party to the lawsuit.)

Related: The Decline of Robert Pamplin’s Family Empire Leads to Financial Measures That Alarm Experts

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center says that the Ross Island lagoon, which is shallow and largely stagnant, is a source of “harmful algal blooms,” which proliferate in summer months when the river water warms and the current slows. The group contends that the blooms move from the lagoon out into the Willamette.

“Harmful algal blooms in the Ross Island Lagoon have become increasingly common,” the lawsuit says. “[They] affect the safety of Willamette River users, and their pets, and well as the water quality of the Willamette River.”

Ross Island Sand & Gravel is reclaiming the lagoon under an agreement with the Oregon Department of State Lands, which regulates the river bottom. The company deposits barge loads of material in designated spots in the lagoon to fill in places previously mined.

Ross Island Sand & Gravel has asked the state to allow it to reduce the amount of remaining fill it will place on the river bottom from a little over 1 million cubic yards to about half that amount in exchange for finishing the job more quickly. DSL and the company are still negotiating that issue. In its lawsuit, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center says DEQ erred in issuing Ross Island a clean water permit before the details of the remaining fill placement have been finalized. Part of what Ross Island proposes is to shift the location of its fill operation to the southern end of the lagoon, where the water is already shallower.

“More shallow water will increase the water temperature of the lagoon and the Willamette River,” the lawsuit says. “As noted, temperature increases will also cause harmful algal blooms to proliferate.”

Overhanging the fill process and related permitting issues: the rocky financial outlook for Ross Island Sand & Gravel, which stopped mining the river in 2001 and shut down its Portland concrete operations in 2019.

As WW has reported, Dr. Robert Pamplin, the CEO of the family-owned R.B. Pamplin Corp., took the highly unusual step of selling both the company’s mothballed concrete plant and Ross Island itself to the company’s pension plan for a combined $15.6 million. Pension experts say the transactions should never have happened because unused industrial property is not a prudent investment for a pension fund. The transactions also highlight a potential cash shortage that could impact Ross Island’s ability to complete the reclamation of the lagoon. (Company officials say the transactions were appropriate.)

Related: In Court Ross Island & Gravel Argued Island Properties Later Sold to Pensioners for $10.8 Million Were Nearly Worthless

The new lawsuit, filed by attorney Karl Anuta for NEDC, asks the court to declare that DEQ erred in issuing the permit; to order DEQ to reconsider Ross Island’s application; and to order the state to pay NEDC’s attorney fees.

DEQ spokesman Harry Esteve says his agency is reviewing the lawsuit.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.