Since at least August 2012, a “mystery pipe” has been dumping extremely high levels of human waste into Mill Creek, and officials so far cannot find its source, despite extensive efforts.
Another mystery seems to be which agency, if any, bears the responsibility to post warnings to the public about the health risk of wading in the creek.
The effort to solve the problem has been going on quietly for some time, belying a statement Thursday by North Central Public Health District — apparently prompted by inquiries from The Chronicle and others — that the problem was discovered only “recently.”
So far, no such warnings have been posted, even though all 25-plus samples taken at the pipe’s outfall, in Ericksen’s Addition, have contained such high levels of E. coli — an indicator of fecal contamination — that they exceeded the measuring capability of the test.
A “chronic” level of E. coli—which is above the level of “acceptable human health risk,” according to the state — is a five-sample average of 126 organisms per 100 milliliters. An acute level of E. coli — also considered above acceptable risk — is 406 organisms in one sample.
Testing equipment can only measure up to 2,419 organisms — six times more than the acute level — and all the samples have exceeded that level, said Anna Buckley, watershed coordinator for the Wasco County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Even when they did a dilution test to test it beyond the maximum amount, “it was still orders of magnitude beyond the test,” she said. The tests themselves are “bomb proof” and produce unquestionable results, she said.
Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some can cause varying degrees of diarrhea, cramps and vomiting. Very rarely, young children and older adults can develop life-threatening kidney failure. Mel Omeg, chair of the conservation district board, is livid at what he perceives as a too-long timeframe to resolve the issue.
“It blows my mind” that an issue like “sewage in a creek that runs through town” has not been more quickly resolved, he said.
“This mystery pipe is really emitting some high levels of E. coli. Dangerous levels,” he said. They’re bad all year, he said, but as the water level drops in summer, right when kids play in the creek, it intensifies the concentration of E. coli.
He felt it was “essential” to fix it before warm weather “attracts children to play in the creek.”
The E. coli concentration does gradually dilute downstream from the mystery pipe’s outfall, at rivermile 1.8, but in a dozen downstream samplings taken last summer, the lowest result, 478.6, still exceeded the acute level. The highest results there exceeded test capabilities.
The averaged sample for weekly tests at Second Street last summer was more than double the acute level.
Higher upstream, the average numbers are more than quadruple and quintuple the acute level.
Omeg has seen various agencies suggest the responsibility to post the creek is someone else’s job.
“I’m amazed at how one entity says, ‘It’s not my jurisdiction; it’s their responsibility over there.’”
Buckley said she saw kids and dogs playing in the creek when she was taking water samples last summer and cautioned them to leave, but to no avail. “I’ll tell them, ‘We’re monitoring for water quality here and we’ve found really high concentrations of E. coli,’ and they just kind of look at you like, ‘Huh?’”
Buckley said her agency’s role is to collect data and share it. “We’ve notified the North Central Public Health District about the issue. We’d love to see some effort around posting it” as a health hazard.
John Zalaznick, the Public Health District’s environmental health specialist, said his primary area of concern is drinking water, not surface water, and also noted nobody has asked his agency to post the creek.
Zalaznick told The Chronicle he would look into posting it, but said it would take time away from his other duties and “right now I think we ought to put our effort into trying to locate the source.”
Teri Thalhofer, director of the health district, said she and Zalaznick had begun talking about the posting issue and were talking to state agencies, including the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of State Lands, “trying to figure out whose jurisdiction it is.”
A DEQ spokeswoman said DEQ does water testing, but only issues health advisories for air quality problems, not water quality.
She said that task fell to the Oregon Health Authority.
Oregon Health Authority spokesman Johnathan Mobie said his agency does do water-related health advisories, but only for ocean contaminations and algae blooms. He suggested calling the local health district.
The Dalles Public Works Director Dave Anderson said it’s his understanding the city is responsible for posting notices — at the Columbia River only — in the event the city itself causes the discharge of contamination into the river.
“Our assumption has been if there was some sort of posting warranted that the decision to do that would be coming from [the health district or DEQ],” he said.
On Wednesday, an email sent on behalf of Zalaznick and Thalhofer said “the source of the E. coli remains unclear” and thus the jurisdiction regarding “remediation” remains unclear.
But Ron Graves, head of the Soil and Water Conservation District, quickly fired back: “Raw sewage is entering Mill Creek through a pipe. It contains brighteners used in laundry detergent. There is nothing unclear about this at all. E. coli levels out of the pipe and in Mill Creek downstream of the pipe are off the charts as shown in the report.”
Buckley suspects the creek contamination may fall into “a gap” in regulations for issuing health notices.
Thalhofer agreed, saying, “I think that’s kind of what we’re finding. It’s nobody’s job, until we find what the source is, it’s not really clear whose jurisdiction it is.”
Thalhofer said she’ll work with state partners, and said her agency “isn’t necessarily” in charge of posting. The health district’s charge is the safety of drinking water, not surface water, she and Zalaznick said.
The pipe, partially obscured by foliage, was discovered on Aug. 3, 2012, jutting out of the creek bank behind a house in the 2400 block of Wright Street in Ericksen’s Addition by a person taking water samples for the conservation district.
As the hunt for the pipe’s source unfolded, city officials quickly took a range of steps.
They sent a flexible metal rod up the pipe and followed the pipe’s direction above ground with a metal detector, Anderson said. They did a similar locate method electronically, this time with a camera that was sent up the pipe.
With the camera, they learned the pipe went right under the home in the 2400 block of Wright Street. A plat map for the house shows an abandoned easement running through the property, probably for the pipe. They were able to follow the pipe until it got about five feet into the street itself.
Then the camera “didn’t want to go any further,” said Steve Byers, waste water collections manager for the city of The Dalles. “We thought it was maybe a bend that it didn’t want to go through, but we don’t know that for sure. We still don’t know that for sure.”
The city sent smoke up the pipe to see if it came out anywhere; it didn’t. They looked at video of sewer mains in the neighborhood and saw that all but three homes were properly hooked to the main.
They did dye tests on those three homes, and found nothing.
The city could also rule out a leaky sewer main, because 300 feet of sewer main in that area, 23rd and Wright streets, were re-lined, Byers said.
A dowser was even used and traced the pipe to a home on Jordan Street. However, no leaks were found at that home.
In November 2013, ground-penetrating radar was also used and got weak signals potentially showing the pipe going across the street to a marshy city-owned lot.
Just last month, in the biggest effort to date, the city dug up a bare lot it owns kitty-corner from the house on Wright Street, in the projected path of the pipe.
“We dug a hole there as deep as the tractor would go trying to find the pipe. We didn’t find anything there,” Byers said.
Then they moved to the Wright Street house itself. With the owners’ permission they dug a hole 14 feet deep in the front yard until they found the pipe. Feeling hopeful, they again sent a camera up the freshly exposed pipe, and again were blocked just a few feet under Wright Street.
“We keep losing our locates in the middle of the street and we don’t want to cut up a perfectly good street in this effort,” Anderson said. They believe the pipe there is crushed or collapsed or has a sharp bend.
The city bought a $2,400 power snake to try to find the pipe’s terminus.
As for the total costs to the city so far, Anderson said, “I don’t even wanna know.”
The city believes it has safely established that no property on city sewer is creating the problem, Anderson said.
A theory officials have is that the fecal matter is likely from a septic source that is intercepting underground spring water and flowing into the pipe, because the water coming out of the pipe is constant — and clear.
In fact, the homeowners at the Wright Street house told officials that their adult son recalled seeing the pipe as a child, and it had water constantly gushing out of it even then.
The four-inch diameter pipe dating to the 1950s is made with orangeberg, a resin-reinforced tarpaper-like material popular for pipes in the 1950s. The orangeberg pipe is known to fail fairly easily, Buckley said.
“Probably the integrity of the pipe has been compromised a bit. Where it’s picking up another contamination source, we don’t know because it’s all underground and it daylights at the creek.”
The new theory is that the pipe originates with a group of five or so homes that lie in county jurisdiction, on the east side of Mill Creek Road, behind a row of city-jurisdiction houses that front the road.
The public health district may be doing dye tests on those homes, Zalaznick said. The problem is it may take a day or two for the dye to show up in the outfall.
But it’s also seen as a long shot that a pipe would be running 400 to 500 feet from those houses down to the creek, especially since there was a much closer drainage, the Skyline tributary to Mill Creek, Zalaznick said.
A drastic option, which the city is not considering for liability reasons, is plugging the pipe and seeing whose house gets backflowed with sewage.
Zalaznick said that was his first thought also, but nobody liked the idea. If the pipe is 400 to 500 feet long, given the amount of flow in it, it would have too much head pressure and no plug would hold for long.