Septic pumper lacks conditional use permit, faces mounting neighbor odor complaints

The Sumner Association of Neighbors (SAN) has an unfortunate situation to report.

Water Truck Service Inc (WTS), a licensed septic pumper based in Sherwood, operates a wastewater processing and disposal facility at 8828 NE Killingsworth (PortlandMaps). They opened their doors locally in spring 2010. Beside pumping septic systems, WTS also collects from industrial catch basins and such. They then process and discharge what they collect into the city sewer system on site at NE 89th and Killingsworth.

WTS sign

WTS wide shot
Caption: A short truck backed into a pumping bay at WTS, as viewed from NE 89th

Issue #1: Odor
A pair of Sumner neighborhood residents near WTS attended our June 21 meeting to ask for help in addressing the odor. They couldn’t risk opening their windows, because once a septic truck began unloading, the stench would fill their house and not leave for hours. They reported that the odor events occurred 3-6 times per day — basically whenever trucks were unloading. They have reported higher frequency during August.

The city and state each have odor restrictions. DEQ is generally concerned with nuisance odors as described in Section 340-208-0310 of the Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR). DEQ also has a more specific interest in odor from WTS because DEQ issues septic pumping licenses. Septic pumpers are governed under Section 340-071-0600 of the OAR. According to Lisa Fincher at DEQ, enforcement of odor violations by septic pumpers start with warning letters, then escalate to fines and, in extreme cases, can even result in loss of their pumper license.

Portland residents can report odor events at the Bureau of Environmental Services website (login required) or by calling 503-823-7180. Odor is defined as an “offsite impact” in city code 33.262 (110K PDF). Other defined offsite impacts include noise, vibrations and glare. It’s unclear yet what level of odor reporting to the city triggers enforcement action or what actions are taken.

Issue #2: Conditional use permit
In late July, based on neighborhood inquiry, the city Bureau of Development Services (BDS) determined and then notified WTS that they were in violation of city zoning codes. Specifically, even though their site is zoned Industrial General 2 (IG2), their processing and disposal facility is a ‘waste-related’ use, which requires a conditional use (CU) permit under city code 33.140.100.

This violation means two things. First, it means that WTS has never been in compliance even a single day at 8828 NE Killingsworth. Second, it means that WTS must now seek and obtain a CU permit — a lengthy & often costly process — to stay and operate legally at this site.

backing in from NE 89th Ave
Caption: A truck backs into the WTS lot from NE 89th Ave. Cars in the foreground show the nearest residential property.

Issue #3: Discharge compliance order
In April 2011, WTS was placed under a compliance order (1.2 MB PDF) by the city Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) for inadequately filtering/processing what they discharge into the sewer system on site. Based on failed tests in October 2010 and February 2011, WTS has been fined twice by BES for discharges containing excess contaminants. In a series of steps, the order mandates a compliant system to be operating by December 15. Interim steps require a draft plan and other preliminary installation and testing.

Where the situation stands now
WTS is allowed to continue operating while addressing these various issues. Here is a summary:

  • City oversight: Both city agencies — BDS and BES — are overseen by Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
  • Meeting: SAN has invited WTS owner Bob Jonas and WTS site manager Paul Hardman to attend our next neighborhood meeting on Tuesday, Sept 20. We have also invited the inspectors from BES and BDS to attend.
  • Odor: As described above, odor is an ongoing issue. Residents can report at the number and web page cited above. Residents might also want to maintain a log of odor events for the public comment periods related to a possible CU application.
  • Environmental discharge permit: WTS must continue complying with the BES order, with compliance dates in October and December, and then monthly discharge tests thereafter. If they fail to complete any step, BES can fine them or order them to stop discharges. SAN has requested notification at each compliance milestone.
  • Conditional use permit: So far the city has declined to shut down WTS for lacking the required CU permit. Instead, they are giving WTS a chance to apply for a CU permit while allowing WTS to operate in the interim. More details about the CU application process & requirements below.
  • [Update (1 Sept 2011) Noise: Pumping can be noisy. As cited above, such noise is also an offsite impact that can be reported to the city. These reports can accrue into the public record for consideration in any CU application WTS might file. To report noise, call 503-823-5829 or email]

septic truck
Caption: A septic truck on the open WTS lot

More about conditional use permits
The violation letter sent by BDS to WTS on July 29 started a 30-day clock ticking by which WTS must fill for a ‘pre-application’ conference with BDS (and pay a $3,700 pre-app fee). After that conference is a series of other steps, each with their own ticking clock.

As explained by Michelle Seward at BDS, with the fastest possible turnaround, we’re looking at something like 6 months until a CU permit hearing and approval by the city council. At specific points in the CU application process, the public can comment. SAN (as the local neighborhood association), the local business association, and property owners within 400 feet are notified directly — but anyone can comment.

If WTS fails to file for a pre-app conference — or presumably, if they fail to complete any other CU application step by its deadline — they can receive a monthly fine for three months. If they fail to file after that, fines could escalate to $1,000 per day.

The conditional use permit requirements for a waste-related use site is spelled out in city code 33.254. It’s a pretty high hurdle to clear. Any conditional use permit application must include a nuisance mitigation plan, a traffic impact study and other elements showing how the applicant will comply with the requirements. Several requirements seem to preclude the current site from consideration, including major street access, 100-foot setbacks, and an enclosed structure for receiving or process waste.

As shown in one of the photos above, even a shortish 14-foot truck cannot fit inside the pumping bay.

Of special concern for neighborhood health and livability
We have an 8-unit apartment complex filled with kids that sits diagonally from WTS (across NE 89th and NE Emerson). We also have Helensview High School two blocks away at NE 87th and NE Emerson. Though NE Emerson St — one block south of NE Killingsworth — is zoned IG2, the rest of the neighborhood — everything south to Sandy Blvd — is zoned R7.

Extra info:

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