THE NORTHWEST Environmental Defense Center (NEDC) doesn't hesitate to pick a fight.
In taking on Oregon's moneyed timber industry, the center—a coalition of lawyers and law students affiliated with Lewis and Clark College—successfully argued its way last year into the pinnacle of the nation's legal arenas: the US Supreme Court.
It's prompted vast Portland scrap metal operations to clean up their acts and filed lawsuits against the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, Owens Corning, Donald Rumsfeld, and many, many others.
Now, the group has a much smaller target in its sights: a dingy scrap yard along Portland's north edge.
The NEDC filed suit in US District Court last week against the owners of Parkrose Auto Center, a tiny operation amid the enormous heavy machinery rentals and metal-strewn acreages of Columbia Boulevard.
The petition is long and stilted in the way of federal lawsuits, but it boils down to this: Rainwater flowing in springtime streamlets from Parkrose Auto Center's property contains oil and other contaminants that enter the stormwater system and reach the Columbia Slough. The NEDC contends owners must get a permit for the discharge and take steps to eliminate the contamination.
"Defendants' unregulated discharges of pollutants into the Columbia Slough diminish NEDC's members' use and enjoyment of the Columbia Slough Watershed area," the suit reads.
It is a run-of-the-mill operation for the NEDC. For more than a decade, the group has threatened lawsuits against companies up and down the slough—a narrow, 19-mile waterway that roughly parallels the Columbia River from Fairview Lake to the Willamette River. Most of those revolve around the federal Clean Water Act, which allows civilians to file suits where traditional regulators haven't or won't.
But the case also illustrates the complications of regulating the messy heavy industry that abuts the Columbia. And it highlights the progress environmental groups and local governments have made in improving the slough, clean to the point they're now left nitpicking oil-slicked rivulets.
"We can be viewed as being aggressive, but all we're asking people to do is comply with the law," says Mark Riskedahl, the NEDC's executive director.
It's Friday, and a light rain has just begun to fall. On the gravel lot of Parkrose Auto Center, 5242 NE Columbia, a young guy looks on as the flattened hulls of former cars are stacked onto a flatbed truck.
He refuses to give his name; he's more than happy to talk about pollution.
"You think this is pollution?" he asks, pointing at water running along the road gutter. "Do you see anything bad here? It used to be oily."
It's true the water lacks that telltale spectral sheen of oil. It's also true that doesn't mean it's clean.
Whatever the man's name—city records indicate the business is operated by a Mo Anotta—it's clear he's in charge. He offers a brief tour of the property, a former welding operation Parkrose has operated for a year. Near the sidewalk, shallow trenches in the gravel are filled with oily rainwater. The young man points to a sump pump purchased for disposing of the water before it overfills the trenches. He shows off oil and antifreeze storage tanks, moved indoors after NEDC's Riskedahl voiced concerns.
"Why is he pushing when he knows things have changed?" the man asks.
City records paint a history of consistent violation at the business.
The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) documented "oily and turbid" water seeping from the property as early as January 2012. It's issued a flurry of warnings and citations since, fining Parkrose $850—including a $500 penalty this month—and demanding it apply for a discharge permit and clean up its act. An application is due in early May.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has also visited the property. An inspector told the Mercury he's been heartened by progress at the site but that the DEQ will still issue a warning letter.
The NEDC sued despite the city and state actions. Riskedahl says the business has continually told him it would make improvements that haven't materialized.
"They've been really nefarious," he says. "They want you to believe they're not really getting what they're supposed to be doing."
Records show, however, that Parkrose is far from the only concern on the slough. BES in recent years has issued dozens of warnings and citations, big and small, to scrap yards with similar runoff problems.
On Monday, April 22, it sent a letter to Schnitzer Steel—a goliath of Portland scrap metal—warning it needs to better monitor its stormwater discharge and keep more-thorough records. In March, it ordered Rivergate Scrap Metals to better monitor its runoff. And in November 2012, BES told Metro Metals, another large operation, that its runoff had excessive pH levels.
In fact, out of seven Portland scrap metal businesses whose records had been sought by the Mercury, six received warnings or citations in the last five years. And those are just the ones that already hold discharge permits.
"Industries are kind of coming and going," says Michael Pronold, environmental manager at BES. The bureau makes an effort to identify potential bad actors, but transience can pose an obstacle. "We're faced with that," he says.
But the fact that Parkrose has been spotlighted at all is, in itself, a victory. The history of the Columbia Slough is rife with lore about slaughterhouse gore, agricultural toxins, and all manner of industrial flotsam.
"It was treated like we treated all our landscape back then," says Jane Van Dyke, executive director of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council. "Purposefully, things were thrown into it and I think it wasn't considered a vital habitat."
The slough's health received a boost from enforcement of the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, and from the 2000 completion of the Columbia Slough Big Pipe, which eliminated wastewater overflows.
These days, says Van Dyke, "you're left with smaller places owned by smaller companies [contributing pollution]."
"It's harder for us these days to find targets," Riskedahl concedes. "It's not so common in Portland to find someone like these guys who are flying so far out there and getting away with it."
That position baffles the man working at Parkrose Auto Center, who said the company will skirt enforcement and handle the lawsuit by eliminating problem runoff.
"We took pictures, we sent him a plan; he still pursues," the man says as the rain begins to fall harder. "Make sure you note he's picking on us."