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BRIDGE of the GODS Magazine

Garbage Under the Bridge

Aug 12, 2021 11:44AM ● By Bridge Of The Gods

In the 1930s, the US Forest Service disposed of garbage by dumping it off of the Bridge of the Gods into the swiftest current of the Columbia River. Not only was this legal, it was common practice for municipalities and industry to dump untreated, sometimes toxic waste into the Columbia. 

In this article, the picture postcard of The Bridge of the Gods and three Forest Service letters discussing an Oregon State Police complaint about dumping garbage are from the early 1930s. One passage reads, "What is a little garbage in a stream like the Columbia as compared with the huge amount of sewage from the many cities up stream, the factory refuse from the woolen mills, and I dare say a pulp mill or two."

While 1930s garbage did not contain the plastic and toxins of today, the custom of dumping garbage into waterways was a common practice throughout the United States. The Willamette River, a downstream contributary to the Columbia, was so polluted  that a September 8, 1970 New York Times article declared it a "dying river."  

Nationwide rampant, severe air and water pollution prompted President Richard Nixon early in 1970 to send a 37-point message on the environment to Congress urging them to act. Out of these, and other efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. Because of sweeping environmental laws enacted during and since, we can enjoy recreation on and food from the Columbia and other rivers.  

The practice of dumping garbage into waterways still exists in other countries around the world. 

 The 1st letter discusses State prohibitions against dumping garbage in the river. 

 The 2nd letter points out the municipalities can legally dump into the river under certain conditions and speculates that the middle of the river is out of Oregon State's jurisdiction. It suggests that they might go beyond the mid-point (toward the Washington side) in order to avoid Oregon's dumping prohibition, and failing that, they might have to resort to burning the garabage.

The 3rd letter outlines the pitfalls of incineration and reiterates that garbage in the river shouldn't be a problem since there was much more dangerous pollution being dumped upstream. It suggests that the garbage is actually good for the fish.