The Ashland Parks and Recreation Department received a scathing letter from an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality employee and is working to clean up its operations.

The Ashland Parks and Recreation Department received a scathing letter from an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality employee and is working to clean up its operations.

In a Dec. 9, 2009 letter, DEQ Natural Resource Specialist Lisa Freeman wrote, "In my opinion, Parks management has a disregard for the environmental regulations as neither important nor necessary."

She said the parks department generates industrial waste water, solid wastes, hazardous wastes and pesticide wastes, but doesn't have a good understanding of the multitude of regulations that apply to wastes.

Freeman said the parks department has not instituted best management practices.

"I would think that Ashland, a forward thinking community with beautiful parks and creeks, would have dedicated staff that care about how their actions impact others and the environment," Freeman said in the letter.

Parks Director Don Robertson said he disagrees with the personal opinion Freeman expressed.

He said the department is working to clean up practices and address problems that were discovered during an inspection.

After the elected Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission set a goal in 2007 for the parks department to check into practices that could make the department more green, parks employees volunteered to have an inspection done by Ashland's Green Team, Robertson said.

The Green Team visits businesses and organizations that want inspections and advice on going green. The team generally tries to set a positive tone. It creates a report for each entity that goes through a voluntary inspection, praising accomplishments and identifying problem areas that are labeled as "opportunities" and "challenges."

Green Team members who inspected the parks department included Freeman from DEQ, energy and water use experts from the city of Ashland's Conservation Division and an employee of the Ashland Sanitary and Recycling company.

The Green Team was hours late to a planned October 2008 inspection of the parks department after being held up at another site. When the team arrived, Parks Superintendent Steve Gies, who handles many on-the-ground operations, had already gone home for the day, Gies and Robertson said.

Robertson, who as parks director spends more time on administrative tasks, said he led the Green Team on a tour, but was unable to answer some of their specific questions about operations.

That set the stage for some misunderstandings about parks department practices, he said.

In her part of the Green Team's inspection report, Freeman wrote that she believed that pesticide containers were being rinsed out and that leftover pesticides and rinse water were being "indiscriminately tossed in an area close to the shop on the ground instead of being reused in the sprayers during the next application."

Robertson said pesticides and rinse water are never dumped on the ground. Instead, parks employees rinse pesticide applicator containers three times and spray the rinse water on the area they are treating, such as poison oak patches.

Since the inspection, the parks department has begun to puncture empty pesticide containers so they can never be used again, in compliance with DEQ regulations, Robertson said.

The department is also working to make sure that containers are labeled, whether they contain pesticides or non-harmful substances. The Green Team found some unlabeled containers, he said.

The Green Team did identify a problem area near a maintenance shop in Lithia Park.

For at least 20 or 25 years, the parks department had been washing vehicles on a concrete pad that had a drain that emptied soap, oil and gas residue into the ground, Gies said.

Although the washing area was legal when it was built, it was not legal at the time of the inspection, Robertson said.

Freeman worried that contaminants in the soil at the wash area could leach into Ashland Creek.

The parks department had the site tested by Western States Environmental and found the area had diesel and oil contaminants. Western States Environmental removed the contaminated material. The area has been paved over and is no longer in use as a wash site, Robertson said.

Contamination levels in the soil at the site were below DEQ danger thresholds, he said.

Parks employees now take vehicles to a legal city of Ashland wash area, he said.

"We've been trying to make things right," Robertson said.

It took more than a year for the parks department to understand DEQ regulations about how to deal with the wash area and to have the site cleaned, he said.

With the advice of the Green Team, Robertson said the parks department has improved its practices and wants to continue getting better.

However, he said he is concerned that the harsh tone of Freeman's Dec. 2009 letter to the parks department might dissuade other businesses and organizations from participating in the Green Team program.

Freeman was out of the office for several days and not available for comment.

On March 18, the Rogue Group Sierra Club sent out a press release titled "Ashland Parks Department Secret? Hazardous Waste Dump in Lithia Park" after obtaining inspection documents.

The words "hazardous waste dump" referred to the illegal vehicle washing area that the parks department had cleaned up.

"It is unconscionable that the Parks Dept. would be illegally disposing of hazardous wastes right in the middle of Lithia Park," Rogue Group Sierra Club Chair Tom Dimitre said in a quote contained in the press release. "Just as disturbing is the fact that after being warned by DEQ, the Parks Dept. did nothing to discontinue illegal dumping and clean up the mess. And, if that isn't bad enough, soil around the sump (wash drain area) is now contaminated and may be leaching hazardous wastes into Ashland Creek."

Dimitre asked in the press release whether parks commissioners and city of Ashland officials had been "kept in the dark" about the "hazardous waste" site.

Dimitre said when he wrote the press release, he didn't know the vehicle wash area had been cleaned up.

In an interview, Dimitre said parks management can focus on the remedial actions they have taken to address Green Team findings, but his focus is on why the parks department operated the wash area for at least 20 years.

"It's not like last year people realized dumping oil and grease into the ground is a bad idea," he said.

Parks Commissioner Rich Rosenthal said commissioners have been kept informed on parks environmental issues. The commission held two study sessions, which are open to the public, about the findings from the 2008 inspection, he said.

In a written response to Dimitre's press release, Rosenthal and fellow Parks Commissioner Mike Gardiner said if Dimitre had attended those public meetings, he would have learned that the inspection report contained several inaccuracies based on erroneous assumptions.

On valid concerns, such as the Lithia Park washing area, Rosenthal and Gardiner said parks managers have "acted prudently and effectively in reviewing, addressing, and, if necessary, correcting environmental waste-handling issues at all department-managed facilities."

They said parks department managers are regional leaders in considering progressive environmental policies and implementing green programs. The two pointed out that the parks department was the first city department to voluntarily go through the Green Team energy efficiency and environmental practices audit.

Other steps taken by the parks department since the inspection include cleaning up a hydraulic fluid or oil spill after a tractor scoop accidentally crushed a container, replacing thinners with less toxic substitutes like mineral spirits, taking 20 gallons of solvent stored in a drum to a DEQ waste collection site, buying recycled paper, replacing a self-composting toilet at the upper Lithia Park swimming hole with a regular restroom, fixing duct leaks and reviewing fuel use policies with the city of Ashland's vehicle fleet manager, according to Robertson, Gies and the department's written responses to the Green Team inspection.

Parks Commissioner JoAnne Eggers, a Rogue Group Sierra Club member, said the commission acted responsibly in setting the goal for the parks department to look into becoming more green.

She said the department is continuing to work on issues of energy, water and chemical use.

"I hope everyone will look at what we're doing and continue to give us their ideas," she said.

On a related note, the parks department is hosting a public hearing about a draft policy for how it manages weeds and insect pests.

The meeting begins at 6 p.m. on March 31 in the Ashland Senior Center, 1699 Homes Ave.

To read the draft policy, visit http://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=12702.

The Rogue Group Sierra Club held a seminar on Wednesday advocating that the parks department reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides on property it tends, including parks, the Oak Knoll Public Golf Course and school grounds.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.