History of Willamette River, Oregon Coast pollution documented in KGW archive reports

In honor of Earth Week, KGW re-published some of the station's historic documentaries produced by environmental reporters and photojournalists, dating back to 1962.

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KGW has a long history of environmental reporting, starting with former reporter and Oregon governor Tom McCall. In honor of Earth Week, KGW re-published some of the station's historic documentaries produced by environmental reporters and photojournalists, dating back to 1962.

Pollution in Paradise (1962)

Tom McCall may be most famous for signing the Oregon’s Beach Bill, protecting the beach as public property for future generations. But at KGW, he was best known for his seminal documentary, “Pollution in Paradise,” which first aired on Nov. 21, 1962. The documentary revealed the many sources of pollution in the Willamette River.

Produced by station manager Tom Dargan and then-KGW political analyst and commentator Tom McCall, Pollution in Paradise is considered an early leader in narrative environmental journalism. It focused on McCall’s investigative skills and reputation as a straight-shooting truth-teller. McCall pressed the powerful idea that there should be no tension between jobs and livability — Oregonians could enjoy both a robust economy and a healthy environment. 

Delivered in his distinctive, familiar voice, McCall pointed his sharpest criticism at the pulp and paper industry. The film includes footage of a Willamette Falls mill dumping thousands of gallons of waste into the river and documented other sources of open pollution of the Willamette River and other waterways in Oregon.

The documentary also criticized the Oregon State Sanitary Authority for its failure to enforce existing regulations.

McCall went on to statewide office, serving as Secretary of State and then from 1967 to 1975 as Governor. Many of the ideas he championed as a journalist became law in Oregon under his political leadership.

Willamette River: Currents of Change (1998)

KGW reporters have continued to cover the Willamette River throughout the years. A follow-up to Pollution in Paradise, ‘Currents of Change,’ revisited the river and how pollution on it impacts the health of the region.

In April 1998, KGW presented, in association with the “Beautiful Oregon” organization, a comprehensive documentary of the Willamette River watershed and its effects on pollution, policy and recreation.

The documentary is considered one of the most definitive documentary reviews of the state of the Willamette River since KGW first established reporting on the health of the region’s most important watershed with Pollution in Paradise.

The broadcast included the presentation of the documentary “Currents of Change,” produced by KGW environmental reporter Jon Catton and photojournalist Tim Jacobson, and a one-hour live forum from the House of Representatives Chamber at the Oregon State Capitol with an assembly of state leaders, environmental policy advocates, business leaders as well as children from school systems, who all participated in the dialogue.

The documentary and forum focused on the young Oregonians who would be inheriting the condition of the river and emphasized the importance of the maintaining protections of the waterways and environment for future generations.

Willamette River: Oregon’s Threatened Treasure (2000)

Another documentary on the Willamette River took a different tactic, showing the full path of the Willamette River by air and water. Detailed graphics show just how much pollution develops as the river winds closer to the Portland metro area.

The Willamette River territory covered spans a broad section of the state. Its headwaters starts high in the Cascade Mountains at Waldo Lake in the Willamette National Forest and then winds for 240 miles through the Willamette Valley, and the cities of Eugene, Albany, Salem and Portland. At its terminus, it joins with the Columbia River.

The special report details the effects of pollution, farming and industry on the river as it passes through each community, and the long-lasting effects of accumulated toxins and pollution.

This documentary is presented by KGW environmental reporter Gary Chittim and photojournalists Tim Jacobson, with host Tracy Barry.

Oregon’s Changing Coast (2001)

This KGW documentary was produced by longtime KGW environmental reporter Vince Patton. It explores the pressures of development and changes to the environment on Oregon’s treasured coastline and the state’s coastal economy. 

The program uses rare footage of former Oregon Governors Oswald West and Tom McCall. In his report, Patton also explores Oregon’s history of protecting the entire coast for use as a public space.

The documentary details work by Oregon State University researchers and other scientists who were studying the impact of development and tourism on the ecosystem. Patton deftly illustrates the ongoing questions faced by a growing coastal population that is not immune to the forces of nature that constantly reshape the coastline itself.

“There’s a perpetual challenge of people who think they can out-engineer Mother Nature,” Patton, who recently retired from OPB, told KGW. “They think they can build their homes or condos right on the edge, to get the best view of the ocean without thinking about the erosion that can ensue. The coast is full of examples of homes that are falling into the ocean because people thought they could out-engineer Mother Nature.” 

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