Updated on 09/16/2011 6:42AM

Portland meet could end prematurely


PORTLAND, Ore. - The current Portland Meadows meeting, scheduled to run through April 28, will end on Feb. 15 unless the track and the Environmental Protection Agency can reach agreement on two issues involving the track's planned water disposal system. They need to agree on the wording in a consent decree, which among other things would establish a schedule of fines, and the track needs to get the EPA to issue an extension on when the disposal system must begin operation.

Portland Meadows's operator, Magna Entertainment Corp. Oregon Racing Inc., promised the EPA to remove horses from the grounds if it had not completed construction on a new storm water disposal system by Feb. 15. Construction on that $700,000 project, which is scheduled to take 45 days, has not yet begun.

"We completed the permitting process three weeks ago, and we selected a contractor for the project after we opened the bids last week, but we can't move forward until we sign a consent decree with the EPA," said Art McFadden, president of MEC Oregon Racing, Inc. "We hope to get that done this week."

The signing of the consent decree has been delayed by a dispute over a clause that would allow the EPA to assess unrestricted fines. The fines would be imposed should waste water escape the new disposal system after extreme rainfall.

"We spent a lot of time negotiating a complex matrix that defines how much we will be fined when water escapes our system, and those fines top out at $27,500 per day," McFadden said. "But the EPA has insisted on a clause that essentially says that it can fine us whatever it wants, notwithstanding the matrix. Our lawyers just can't accept that."

As it turns out, a lawsuit designed to stop racing at Portland Meadows may provide the incentive for both sides to sign the consent decree. A coalition of environmental groups gave notice in November that they intended to file suit under the federal Clean Water Act against both the track's operator and the EPA after a required 60-day waiting period. That period expires Jan. 28, but if the consent decree is signed before then it will effectively preempt the lawsuit by assigning the fines, which might otherwise have gone to the plaintiffs, to the EPA.

Even if the consent decree is signed, however, there will not be time to complete the disposal system before Feb. 15. Track officials hope the EPA will not insist on the evacuation of all horses if the project is going forward.

When asked to assess the chances that racing would continue beyond Feb. 15, McFadden answered indirectly, pointing to an earlier compromise suggested by Jim Fergason, a trainer and member of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Agency. Under Fergason's plan, the meet was allowed to open after the Feb. 15 deadline was established.

"There was a point in early October when we thought there was only one chance in a thousand that we could open the meeting," he said.

"That turned around in one day. It might take another miracle like the Jim Fergason plan to get us over this obstacle."

If the current meeting ends prematurely, it won't necessarily spell the demise of Oregon racing. Assuming a decree is signed, Magna Entertainment Corp., the parent of MEC Oregon Racing, has said that it intends to complete the disposal system in time to allow training at Portland Meadows this summer and that it intends to conduct three more seasons of racing at the track. By the time its lease runs out, Magna hopes to have completed a new track on land it has optioned near Wilsonville, about 20 miles south of Portland.

"I've been impressed with Magna's commitment to Oregon racing," said McFadden, who was deeply involved in the state's Thoroughbred industry long before he began working for Magna last year. "They inherited this environmental problem, but they are spending $700,000 to fix it. Just a couple of weeks ago they renewed their options on the land in Wilsonville. It would be easy for them to just walk away, but they aren't doing that. They want to be here for the long term."