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City posts E. coli risk on Mill Creek

The city posted signs along Mill Creek Wednesday, warning people that dangerous levels of E. coli are being dumped into the creek by a “mystery pipe” in Ericksen’s Addition.

Posting the creek is a significant step, since officials have struggled to find which agency bore responsibility for the job.

E. coli is an indicator of the presence of human waste and some strains can cause severe illness.

“The question has been who has the authority to post it, and the city council said that unless we could find a legal reason why we shouldn’t — and we have not identified one — we are going to go ahead and work with our partners and identify some language” and create and post the warning signs, said The Dalles City Manager Nolan Young.

The postings are the upshot of The Dalles citizen Lloyd Clark venting his concern to the city council Monday, April 28, about the lack of posting.

Young said the state Department of Environmental Quality “regulates the waters of the state, I would think that they would be responsible for that. We’re not worried about who has the responsibility for warning [the public], we’re just going to do it.”

The city has also determined that if the latest round of dye testing, begun Wednesday, April 23, does not yield results, it will dig into Wright Street early next week to hopefully find the pipe.

Numerous varied efforts by the city to trace the pipe from its outfall behind a house in the 2400 block of Wright Street have all dead-ended at a point underneath the street, some 200 feet away from the pipe’s outfall.

“We’ll go into the street, we’ll dig it up, we’ll try to pick the pipe up again, we’ll put the snake in it and we’ll trace it and try to follow it as far as we can follow,” Young said.

The dye tests done April 23 were of five homes on septic systems on Sunset Valley Drive, just east of Mill Creek Road, and two homes on Mill Creek Road on city sewer.

That brings to 15 the homes that have been dye tested.

The two on city sewer immediately flushed into the city sewer system.

Nothing has appeared yet from the five homes on septic systems. The city is giving the dye plenty of time to work its way through septic drain fields, and down the 400 to 500 yards to the pipe’s outfall.

The city believes the 1950s era pipe, which constantly discharges clear water, is a drainpipe meant to dewater a natural spring — making the area stable for homes — and somehow human waste is mixing into the spring water.

On the day the dye was added to the homes, crews watched the mystery pipe all day. Since then, they have put a cotton cloth over the pipe to wick up any dye that appears. They check the cloth two or three times a day.

“We’d sure like some dye to show up, but if that doesn’t happen we hope the street thing works,” Young said. “We still don’t know that we’re going to be able to find where it’s coming from.”

The city worked with North Central Public Health District and the state Department of Environmental Quality on wording of the sign, which cautions swimmers that bacteria is in the water and contact should be avoided.

E. coli is found in all human and animal waste, and while many forms of it are harmless, some can cause illness and very rarely death, especially in the very young or the elderly.

Water from the pipe itself, while running clear, has so much E. coli that tests can’t measure it. At the Second Street bridge, 1.8 miles downstream, E. coli levels still exceed “acute” levels.

Officials believe it is from a human source because the water also contains optical brighteners, which are used in laundry detergent.

The Wasco County Soil and Water Conservation District discovered the “mystery pipe” nearly two years ago, in August 2012, when doing water testing on Mill Creek.

While the conservation district, in an April 15 letter to the city, suggested plugging the pipe, Young said, “We have determined we can’t just plug it because it’s coming from somewhere. If nothing else you could build up pressure and create a blowout and a blowout could hurt things. And if it backs up drainage it could damage property.”

The city’s decision to post warnings on the creek puts an end to the matter for other agencies. Earlier this week, Teri Thalhofer, executive director of the health district, said her agency was “continuing to consider it” but also was working on getting in touch with the right person at the state Department of Environmental Quality to discuss where responsibility lies.

Thalhofer said the health district wasn’t at the point yet of seeking legislation to clarify responsibility for cleaning up the contamination and providing public notification.

District 59 State Rep. John Huffman said, “Honestly, when I looked at the articles in the newspaper, my assumption was that DEQ would’ve been involved in the process, because DEQ typically handles groundwater and surface water contamination issues, so I’m not sure what the problem is there.”

He said he’d be happy to “talk to somebody about it if there needs to be some kind of a legislative fix.”

Thalhofer lauded the city, saying they’ve “been incredible in their effort. They have spent countless, countless hours to track this down.”

She said she’d like to get “everybody to the table and make sure everybody’s contributing what they can when there’s not a clear line of responsibility.”

If a failing septic system is found to be the source of the E. coli, “that’s when our responsibility kicks in and we would work with the landowner on a mitigation and work on repair,” Thalhofer said.

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