Public works employee, expert in street chemistry, deals in the strange and stinky

When there’s something strange, stinky or potentially radioactive in the neighborhood, Bill Fear is on the case.

An expert on all things liquid, Fear has served Salem and the surrounding region’s wastewater systems for the past 36 years. He was one of 34 Salemites honored in a city awards ceremony in October for his efforts helping a woman during the 2021 heat wave.

On any given day, his job with the city’s public works department can land him inside someone’s crawlspace, sweeping a street or disposing of an anthrax scare. 

He works as a complaint specialist for the city, taking calls around the clock at the public works dispatch center, and also serves on the Salem regional hazmat team, which covers an area spanning Lincoln City to Redmond.

Callers are often from homeowners with wastewater or drainage issues, or people who see changes in their local creeks.

He said his first step when he gets a call is to smell it out.

“Luckily, I still have a very good sense of smell,” he said, and laughed. “I have a big nose, so I think I was put on this earth to filter the air and find smells for folks.”

With decades of experience, he can identify most issues upon a first look and knows when to call in sweepers and trucks to respond to spills and leaks.

Often, he does the manual work himself. Recently, he and his partner spread around 12 bags of fine-grained cat litter in Salem Heights following a car crash that leaked oil, spread further by rain.

Less frequently, he has done clean ups at crime scenes and after train crashes when the department is called.

“It’s just something that has to be done. But I don’t think other communities have that. You can’t call Portland Public Works and get somebody to clean up a suicide,” he said.

It’s a pace and unpredictability he enjoys. 

With a love of science that began with his first microscope at age 8, Fear went to Oregon State University to study microbiology and public health.

After graduating, he began his career in 1986 at the city of Willow Lake Wastewater Pollution Control Facility lab where he tested for E. Coli in drinking water, wastewater and sewage samples.

“That got boring, because it was the same stuff,” he said.

While at the lab, Fear was selected for the newly formed hazmat team between public works, the fire department and the police department. 

It was the early 1990s, and he went through hazmat training with a pager on-hand to inform him if his wife went into labor. 

Today, his kids have grown up and moved out, and he’s the hazmat team’s longest-serving member. When he first joined, it was run by the city. It is now a state entity, under the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

As the only public works member on a team of firefighters, he brings his knowledge of chemistry to responses.

“It’s what’s called street chemistry,” he said. “You can know the electrons for all this, but just knowing reactions and if that spills what not to do, what not to put on it to get it cleaned up, what illnesses might be associated with it.”

On that team, he gets about six calls a year for potentially hazardous materials. Sometimes the issue can be solved over the phone, but other times the team will take a trip.

“We’ve gone all the way to Bend because of a letter that said ‘anthrax, you’re dead.’ There was nothing in it. The city of Bend, they didn’t want it in their city, so we took a vehicle over, got it, dropped it in some bleach… closed it up, stopped in Sisters for dinner and came home,” he said.

More commonly, Fear helps residents solve their water issues and properly dispose of materials as an environmental compliance specialist at the Public Works department who responds to dispatch calls.

That role which got him recognition at a city volunteer awards ceremony in October, where he received the Richard Swyers Public Works Employee Award, named for a former crew member who passed away in 2020.

“When our trucks say, ‘Salem at your service,’ it’s Bill,” said former Mayor Chuck Bennett during the ceremony.

During a heat wave this summer, he got a call from a woman who was concerned her sump pump wasn’t working.

Fear went to her home and saw the pump was working fine, but when he knocked on the homeowner’s door he noticed that she was covered in a sheen of sweat and wearing a Life Alert necklace.

Despite being called for a water issue, he asked if he could take a look at her air conditioning. 

She had accidentally shut off the power to it on her switchboard, he said. As a first time homeowner, she told him she wasn’t sure how to keep things running. 

The system was something he knew how to fix because of his own home projects, he said. A few hours later, he got her air conditioner back on.

“I came back to my supervisors, and said ‘This is not over, she’s going to call again,’ and sure enough she called the next day,” he said.

Over several subsequent trips, he got her a lock for her breaker box, programmed her irrigation timer, and stood on a chair to take care of a spider.

When asked why he went above and beyond, he said that there was no reason to stop helping her.
A few weeks later, the woman sent the department a four page thank you letter and gift cards for ice cream. It was unexpected, as was the award from the city it brought on.

“It was just a thing that was supposed to be working. I wanted it to work,” he said.

Bill Fear, left, with former Mayor Chuck Bennett during an awards ceremony for local volunteers Oct. 17 (Courtesy / Bill Fear)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.