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By Janie Har May 5, 2012

Did the City of Portland agree to treat its water because a contractor said we should?

In response to a question about rising utility rates, State Rep. Jefferson Smith said at the debate that mayors should guard against boondoggles. PolitiFact Oregon totally agrees with Smith that boondoggles are bad. But our ears perked up at what he said next.

"The most important principle, I think, for a mayor is to be on boondoggle watch," he said. "Is to make sure that if somebody is trying to build a set of water treatment plants to cure us from cryptosporidium we don’t have, we don't say yes even if CH2M Hill wants us to."

Last time we looked, the city did find cryptosporidium in our drinking water. Not a lot, but there were traces.

More importantly, we think, the City of Portland agreed to build a treatment plant to guard against cryptosporidium not because of a contractor but because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanded it. (We no longer have to build as of March.)

CH2M Hill, an engineering and construction company, certainly has been involved with the Water Bureau. The company would have gotten a piece of the contract for the UV treatment system we no longer have to build.

We asked Smith to comment. And he said of course he didn’t mean to imply that CH2M Hill was behind the treatment mandate; he knows it came from the federal government.

The broader point he was trying to make "is the power behind these big projects can be immense" and it can be far too easy for government to make decisions based on what powerful interest groups want rather than what’s important to the public.

Certainly, large companies have the power to cajole officials into making some projects more important than others. But that’s not what Smith said at the debate. To the casual listener, Smith said that we don’t have cryptosporidium but we’re building plants to treat for it because a corporation wants us to.

We find the statement False.

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Did the City of Portland agree to treat its water because a contractor said we should?

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