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Students fight toxic waste

PSU students are gearing up to clean the Willamette River, the second most polluted river in the West. The campaign they are joining, “Students for a Clean Willamette,” is one of three campaigns run by the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG).

Members of OSPIRG are helping clean the river,signing petitions and educating others on the need to clean the Willamette.

And OSPIRG volunteers don’t just educate PSU students, they are also spreading the news in Portland high and middle schools.

Last term, OSPIRG volunteers invited a group of high school students to present a documentary on the Willamette to a middle school. The event was organized by Megan Alameda, last year’s coordinator of the campaign.

“It was really awesome to see both groups of students interacting with each other,” she said. “They were more enthusiastic about hearing this from their peers than from us or a teacher.”

Volunteers from OSPIRG have also taken children into wetlands to plant trees, take water temperature, and look for macroinvertebrates (insects that reveal health conditions of water).

“Educating yourself and others about what is going on (in the environment) is our number one priority,” Alameda said.

OSPIRG volunteers also encourage advocates of a cleaner river to sign petitions. The petitions are sent to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), a state-sponsored organization that regulates the pollution companies emit into the river.

“We’re here to put pressure on DEQ,” Arisa Khalsa said.

Khalsa, this year’s OSPIRG coordinator, believes DEQ often turns a blind eye to companies that exceed their pollution allowance.

“DEQ knows businesses break their permits, and doesn’t do anything about it,” she said. “DEQ sort of has a relationship with these businesses.”

As a result, Khalsa said, the federal government’s “Clean Water Act” of 1972 has not been maintained. And part of the river that was proclaimed to be “among the cleanest in the Nation” (June 1972 National Geographic article) has now been declared a federal Superfund toxic waste site.

Khalsa hopes signing petitions will help DEQ understand the public’s concern for a cleaner river, and will motivate DEQ to put pressure on environmentally hazardous businesses. OSPIRG volunteers are also helping clean the river themselves. About once a month, volunteers spend an entire day sifting waste from the river and cleaning the riverbed.

Some river-cleaners even wear full-body suits to protect them from harmful chemicals. Then they monitor the river and search for signs of pollution increase or decrease. Alameda admits sending out individuals once a month is not the best solution to purifying the river. “Obviously we can’t take the toxins out of the river,” she said.

“A lot of pollution starts from homes,” Alameda said, “when people rinse out paint cans, wash cars, change car fluids or spray pesticides in their lawns.” Alameda understands that some forms of polluting are inevitable. But simply making a better effort to recycle, she said, would improve our environment enormously.