OSF employee dumped paint into Ashland Ceek

Police are preparing to cite the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for polluting Ashland Creek after an employee dumped latex paint into a storm drain Monday, the city announced Thursday.

A paint can spilled in the bed of a truck and the cream-colored paint flowed into a storm drain as an OSF employee rinsed the truck bed on First Street, the festival said in a release, in which they acknowledged responsibility for polluting the creek.

Cream-colored paint flowed from a drain into the creek behind the Plaza, clouding a swath of water, between 1:30 and 3 p.m.

An Ashland police officer will cite the festival on Monday for placing an offensive substance in the water, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $6,250, Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said Thursday.

"The Shakespeare festival has a responsibility, because it was their employee who put the paint in the drain," he said. "My understanding is that they're working on the issue and doing training to make sure it doesn't happen again, which is what I would expect from them."

Water in the city's storm drains flow directly to creeks, without being treated. Dozens of drains, including those surrounding OSF, snake through downtown and empty into Ashland Creek. Storm drains in many cities are not connected to wastewater treatment plants.

The festival has strict protocols regarding the disposal of paints, which were not followed Monday when the spill occurred, OSF said.

"The festival deeply regrets that this incident occurred and is seeing this as an opportunity to alert the public and our own employees to the impact of inappropriately using storm drains," said Paul Nicholson, the festival's executive director.

Police and OSF officials said they don't know how much paint spilled into the creek.

OSF declined to release the name of the employee responsible for the spill or information about what department he works in at the festival. Nicholson said the worker remains employed at the festival.

Nicholson said the spill occurred near the festival's Prop and Scene shops, where sets for the plays are painted. However, he said festival officials don't believe the cream-colored paint was being used on any OSF sets or elsewhere at the festival, because of its color and because it's a different brand from what OSF typically uses.

"What we believe is that someone dumped it by our trash can and the employee took it when he was doing a dump run. When he got to the dump, he discovered that the can had spilled," Nicholson said.

Holderness said the Ashland Police Department will forward information about the citation to the state Department of Environmental Quality. It's unlikely DEQ will cite the festival for polluting the waters of the state, unless OSF repeatedly spills paint into the creek, he said.

Ashland Creek leads to Bear Creek, which flows into the Rogue River. Nicholson said OSF officials did not know the storm drains led to the creek.

"We, along with a great many residents, were not aware that the storm drains emptied directly into our beautiful Ashland Creek and are dismayed at the potential for damage arising from our action," he said. "We are taking steps to ensure this never happens again by educating all of our staff about the consequences of inappropriate dumping of waste. This has been a wake-up call for us."

The festival said it is working to make sure all storm drains on its property are labeled to let people know that they feed directly into the creek.

The city is also working to educate residents about illegal dumping. Last month volunteers began signing up to help affix metal placards to all 3,000 storm drains in Ashland, as part of a state Department of Environmental Quality mandate. The 4-inch labels that say "No Dumping, Drains to Stream," have been affixed only on Oak Street so far.

Paint can irritate, clog or destroy fish's gills; poison other animals and plants; contaminate soil and groundwater; and prevent light from entering the water, hindering plant photosynthesis and animals' ability to gather food, according to the city.

The city is seeking volunteers to help affix placards to storm drains. For more information, call the North Mountain Park Nature Center at 541-488-6606.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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