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Salem's Pollution Problem (1929)
 
Conventional wisdom traces the environmental movement in the United States Congressional passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963, and the Water Quality Act in 1965.Yet a report was discovered showing that Salem’s City Council was wrestling with environmental issues four decades earlier. An engineer’s detailed study that enabled the Council, in the spring of 1929, to force two companies to quit spewing soot and cinders over downtown Salem. The fall of partially burned material had been so intense that The Oregon Statesman described "soot-begrimed citizens" walking in downtown with their eyes "kept half-closed" for protection.

Cinders and soot were not the Salem Council’s only problem in that last Spring before the Great Depression, the Statesman newspaper reported. In Spring, 1929, the city council began developing a municipal water service to replace the Oregon-Washington Water Services Corp., which was delivering not only water but also "vegetable growth" to the citizens. The Council ordered livestock – especially goats and chickens – ousted from the City unless neighbors agreed to the farm animals’ presence. It awarded the city’s first bus franchise, debated possible conflicts of interest in the city’s purchases from companies owned by council members; added 96 acres to the new Salem Airport and authorized the City’s first traffic lights.

None of those issues, however, matched for longevity the nuisance caused by the fall of cinders and soot, produced in wood-burning boilers, at factories along the Willamette River. The council passed Salem’s first anti-smoke ordinance in 1923. But enforcement lagged – and cinder, fly ash, and soot continued to fall. The City needed evidence to put teeth into its law.

So the Council, acting on the advice of its Smoke Committee, hired E.B. Boals, a professional engineer from Oregon State Agricultural College in Corvallis. It is his report to the Council, dated April 29, 1929, that was found in the Marion County Historical Society’s archives.

He said his tests showed "the soot-fall" over downtown Salem to average 1,400 tons per square mile annually. Compared to other cities, he said, "the intensity of the soot-fall in Salem is decidedly heavy" – worse than the 426 tons that fell on London, England, and the 196 tons experienced by Portland. Only steel-making Pittsburgh, PA, ranked worse than Salem on Boals’ list.

Boals inspected four riverfront factories in Salem: Spaulding Lumber Co., Oregon Pulp and Paper Co., Portland Electric Power Co., and Hanson Planing Mill. The wood-burning boilers at all four, he found, were operated in accordance with the city’s smoke ordinance. The smokestacks at all four plants were equipped with spark arresters.

But Spaulding and Oregon Pulp had failed to install cinder removal devices for their smokestacks, Boals found. "Equipment for the removal of dust particles from air or gas streams has been built for many years," Boals said, noting that such devices had been improved during the 1920s because of higher boiler ratings in steam plants, the development of pulverized fuel combustion systems, and municipal regulation. Spaulding Lumber was located on the river between Trade and Ferry streets, while Oregon Pulp operated between Front Street and the river on Trade.

Boals found both Spaulding and Oregon Pulp to be violating Salem’s 1923 smoke ordinance. He recommended that the City Council require both companies "to install equipment for the elimination of a reasonable proportion of their cinders from their smokestacks

."Such action, he said, would not establish a precedent, reporting that other cities like Eugene and Portland already had invoked legal sanctions against industrial polluters to clean their air. Boals’ report was so persuasive that neither Spaulding Lumber nor Oregon Pulp argued.Within a month of his report, Spaulding Lumber announced it would convert its steam-driven saws to electricity and abandon its boilers before July 1st.

Oregon Pulp & Paper said it would buy newly designed cinder arresters that Carl Gerlinger of Dallas would have on the market by August. The report that forced Spaulding and Oregon Pulp to eliminate their production of cinders included Boals’ studies of soot and cinder fall from December, 1928, to April, 1929.

Simply from observation from downtown roof-tops, Boals knew that Spaulding and Oregon Pulp were the principal sources of the cinders - - defined as "partly burned combustible substances." Boals said Salem’s cinders were "small bits of charcoal."Boals’ initial hope had been to measure the cinders being produced by the two companies’ boilers, but the companies apparently balked. "Apparatus for the measurement of the quantity of cinders discharged was constructed, but not used, because of a difference of opinion as to a point of sampling," Boals wrote.

His evidence came, rather, from cans - - six inches in diameter and 10 inches deep - - placed on roofs of 10 downtown buildings. The measuring sites were:
1. Salem Statesman newspaper, Commercial at Ferry, about 650 feet from the two mills. 
2. State Street Garage, Front at State Street. 
3. U.S. National Bank, Commercial at State, about 950 feet distant. 
4. Eiker’s Garage, Liberty at Ferry. 
5. Western Auto Supply, Commercial at Court. 
6. Farmers’ and Merchants’ Warehouse, Liberty at Court, about 1,300 feet away. 
7. Miller’s Store, Liberty at Court. 
8. Oregon Building, State at High. 
9. Capital Second Hand, Commercial at Chemeketa, about 1,720 feet away.
10. Odd Fellows Building, High at Court.

Boals put out his cans twice - - December 8th and February 10th. His first test failed, however. So much rain fell in December and January that many of the falling cinders had been washed out of the cans. But, after the 21-day second test, Boals found 5,998 grams of soot and cinders in the ten cans.
He emptied his cans and resumed testing until April 6th.

Translating his measurements, he declared that 7,250 pounds of soot and cinders fell on the block bounded by Commercial, Ferry, Trade, and Front Streets during 43 days. That was an average of almost 170 pounds a day on the block surrounded by Court, Liberty, State, and Commercial.

Like many consultants’ reports, Boals’ document was put on a shelf to gather dust. But why not? It was so well done, that its mere preparation had led to the solution of the problem Boals had been hired to address. Would that all municipal issues were so easily solved.

Written by John McMillan

Bibliography:
Marion County History, Volume XV, Page 129, Salem Public Library

 

 
Oregon Pulp and Paper Mill

Oregon Pulp and Paper Mill was found to be a "sooty" neighbor

Courtesy of SPL

Ben Maxwell Collection
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