TILLAMOOK, Ore. — Oregon regulators say there is no public health risk after an estimated 300,000 gallons of digested cow manure spilled at the Port of Tillamook Bay.
The spill was first reported July 22 at the port’s anaerobic digester, which captures methane and carbon dioxide emissions from manure to generate electricity.
Lauren Wirtis, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said most of the digested manure was contained on site. However, a portion of the material did reach a storm water pipe that empties into a portion of Anderson Creek about 2.5 miles from the Tillamook River.
The Tillamook River flows another five miles before entering the ocean at Tillamook Bay.
Both DEQ and the Oregon Department of Agriculture tested water samples for bacteria, including fecal coliform and E. coli. Results showed there was no impact on water quality at Tillamook Bay, and no closures or restrictions were placed on shellfish harvest.
There are 10 licensed shellfish firms that operate out of Tillamook Bay, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Samples taken from a pool below the outfall at Anderson Creek did show elevated levels of E. coli. The port pumped out water from the pond to ensure none of the spilled material would reach downstream. DEQ also issued an emergency permit allowing the port to spray 35,000 gallons of the recovered digestate on several hundred acres of grass at the Tillamook Airport as part of the cleanup effort.
“Unlike some previous instances, this isn’t raw sewage,” Wirtis said. “It’s partially digested manure, which means that the pathogen level is significantly lower than if it was raw manure.”
Wirtis said DEQ is responsible for permitting the digester, which is owned by the port and leased to Tillamook Biogas LLC, a branch of BioGas Corp. based in Raleigh, N.C. The agency has not yet determined whether it will issue any fines for the spill.
Michele Bradley, general manager at the Port of Tillamook Bay, said port workers were the first to discover the spill, which happened sometime after 7 p.m. July 21. Crews with the port and operating company began working immediately to contain the spill and start the cleanup.
“My guys were walking in 6 inches of manure down there,” Bradley said.
The Tillamook digester was built in 2012 and operated by the port until 2017. It sat idle for two years until DEQ issued a new permit for the facility on Oct. 3, 2018, and the port leased it to Tillamook Biogas.
Tillamook Biogas, in turn, contracted in February with Regenis, a company based in Ferndale, Wash., to recommission and upgrade the plant. Michael Grossman, a spokesman for Regenis, said the digester has the capacity to process 120,000 gallons of manure a day, though it is currently processing just 30,000 gallons in its initial run.
The spill was traced to a faulty sensor in one of the digester’s tanks that caused it to overflow, Grossman said. As of July 26, the company had recovered 260,000 gallons of spilled material, or 87%.
In a written statement, Regenis says additional precautionary measures — such as additional sensors in the digester’s tanks to shut the system down in an emergency — were not in place. The company says it understands how upsetting the spill was, but is confident there is no danger to Tillamook Bay or the shellfish industry.
“Given the long list of benefits of anaerobic digesters for our farmers, our soil, our watersheds and our planet, we hope the community looks past this unfortunate incident,” the company stated.