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Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 05 October 2009

 John Kroger and Travis Williams

 Photo by Brian Stimson

Paddling the Willamette River can be both a serene and chaotic experience – migrating cormorants, blue herons and other water fowl; the concrete, steel and wood remains of Portland's industrial past; the toxic dead zones and Superfund sites along the river.
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger is leading the state's fight against pollution with the office's first ever unit designed to investigate the state's biggest environmental crimes perpetrators.
But first, Kroger wants people to get out into the nature he's committed to protecting – and that includes the folks in the attorney general's office.
On Thursday, Kroger and members of the Willamette Riverkeeper lead an expedition of community activists, journalists and attorney general's office staffers onto the much maligned river south of the Hawthorne Bridge. Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper guided the motley crew past the natural and industrial sights of the mighty river.
Kroger says getting out of the office and into the natural environment is an essential component of realizing the importance of environmental justice. The state's top law enforcement officer is planning on making these expeditions on every major river in Oregon. The next trip is being planned in Southern Oregon in spring.
Just south of the Hawthorne Bridge, the biggest environmental impact to the Willamette has been the Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company. For decades the company has carved apart Ross and Hardtack islands. To restore what was once thriving, low-depth fish habitat, the company is now using the rock and soil dredging from the city's Big Pipe project.
Paddling slowly up the river, it's easy to see the impact this human activity has on river life. Massive barges belching black smoke travel up and down the river, collecting rocks and dirt from a large conveyor belt near OMSI to later drop at the Ross Island Sand and Gravel yard on the island. Ross and Hardtack islands, once two islands, are now one, forming a deep, manmade lagoon, littered with a variety of industrial hardware.
The river once had 80 percent low-depth and 20 percent high-depth fish habitat; those numbers are now reversed due to human activity. The infill from the Big Pipe project aims to rebuild a small portion of this habitat while also mitigating another major river pollutant – raw sewage.
During periods of heavy rainfall, the city's sanitary sewer system – originally built to accommodate a much smaller city – overloads capacity and dumps street runoff and raw sewage into the river. The Big Pipe project is expanding the capacity of the system to prevent this overflow.
For more information about the Willamette Riverkeepers visit http://www.willamette-riverkeeper.org/ or Attorney General John Krogers environmental crimes efforts visit http://www.doj.state.or.us/

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