photo by Matt Davis

ATTORNEY GENERAL John Kroger launched his clean-up campaign for Oregon's rivers with a paddle in the Willamette last Thursday afternoon, October 1, in the company of a few journalists, some ornery citizens, and environmentalists from the city, state, and Willamette Riverkeeper—a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring Portland's poopy waterway.

"The idea is to get people together in the river so that they can see the challenges we're facing," said Kroger, when asked why he had organized the junket, adding later, with a smile: "I just wanted to get you out of the office."

Kroger led the group past the output funnel for dirt excavated from the city's Big Pipe Project—aimed at completion in 2011, the project will significantly reduce combined sewer outflows into the Willamette. Dirt from the Big Pipe is also being used to fill in the hole left upstream by the Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company, said Riverkeeper Director Travis Williams. "We're hoping to create shallow water habitats for fish."

Later, Kroger held a town hall on the South Waterfront, where he told 100 citizens he felt Oregon has been complacent about environmental protection in the past because of its progressive approach to issues like land-use planning and the bottle bill.

Then Kroger pointed to a metal plating company in Northwest Portland that was caught dumping chromium in the river six times over a three-year period under his predecessor, Hardy Myers. Nobody charged the company with a crime, he said. Instead, the company was given a series of fines averaging $150 per instance.

"When you run a stoplight, it's a $240 ticket," said Kroger. "It's a bigger deal to run a traffic signal in Oregon than to repeatedly pollute our rivers."

Kroger is about to hire two environmental prosecutors in his office. Nevertheless, he faced a skeptical audience at the town hall. One woman wanted to know what Kroger could do to stop the feminization of fish in the state's rivers because of the large-scale dumping of pharmaceuticals. Another gentleman said he's been trying to call attention to issues at the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup site for 10 years. "But when employees come out to blow the whistle, the system stops them," he said. "How are you going to protect these citizens?"

Bob Salinger from the Audubon Society wanted to know what Kroger would do to prevent cruelty to wildlife.

"Our history of prosecution on these issues in Oregon has been abysmal," Salinger said.

"All I can tell you is come back in a year and see how many indictments we have issued," said Kroger.