Environmental group suing Medford over Rogue River pollution says issue goes beyond city

MEDFORD, Ore.- The Northwest Environmental Advocates says Medford’s wastewater water treatment plant is polluting the Rouge River. But the group says this issue goes beyond just Medford.

In 2013, Rogue Fly Fishers commissioned a study on Medford’s impacts on the Rogue River. The findings in that study lead to a 2018 lawsuit filed against the city of Medford for violating it’s Clean Water Act permit.

“When Department of Environmental Quality issued the current permit that Medford has been operating under, it didn’t require any monitoring of the Rogue River impacts and didn’t require any control or removal of those pollutants,” said Nina Bell with the Northwest Environment Advocates group. The organization is suing the city over it’s discharge of pollutants into the Rogue.

“The nutrients we are talking about are phosphorus nitrogen and people don’t think of that as water pollution, but it has the same effect in a river as when you put it on your grass or vegetable garden- it makes things grow,” she explained. She says that discharge comes from the city’s water treatment plant.

According to the advocacy group, its causing overgrowth of weeds and algae in the river, and disrupting native insect and fish populations.

“Discharge permits are supposed to be reissued every five years to keep them current with what we understand about their impacts on river pollution,” Bell said.

Medford’s city attorney Eric Mitton says the city was just following the language in the permit, and reading it the same way the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has for years.

“NWEA had a different reading of that permit language and there was litigation about what that permit language meant,” Mitton explained.

That’s what lead to the federal judge ruling that Medford was liable in violating the issued permit.

“U.S. district judge issued an order finding that the permit should be read not in the way the DEQ was reading it, but the way Northwest Environmental Advocates was reading it,” Mitton explained. He says the case is far from over, so it’s unclear what the future of the litigation looks like.

But Bell says the lawsuit is about much more than just the city of Medford. Her group sued the DEQ  in state court to get them to issue higher quality permits in a more timely manner, and urge them to create a federal clean up plan for rivers like the Rogue.

“It shouldn’t be up to us to have to go and sue all the individual towns, and we can’t sue farmers. That’s really the DEQ’s to deal with,” said Nina Bell.

NWEA says the city’s ability to point to the permit as why it was releasing the pollutants shows that the state’s permitting process is flawed.

City attorney Mitton says nothing is yet scheduled for the next steps of litigation.

UPDATE 10/8: This post has been updated to reflect that the plant in question is a wastewater treatment plant, not a water treatment plant.

Grace Smith is co-anchor for NBC5 News at 6. The Chicago native is a recent graduate of University of Miami with a Communication Honors degree specializing in Broadcast Journalism. She minored in Creative Writing and focused her senior thesis on social media usage and engagement. During her time at the University of Miami, she anchored multiple award-winning student television programs, covering everything from music festivals to the Super Bowl. Though she loved Miami's beaches, she's thrilled to be in the Pacific Northwest where she can experience all four seasons and have a real Christmas tree! When she’s not at work, you can find Grace glued to any television showing live sports (especially if it's the Chicago Bears) or attempting a new recipe as she learns to cook.
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