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Harbor cleanup stirs possibilities for all

Our Opinion
by: Tribune file photo, Plans to clean up the Portland Harbor could include new recreation areas and industries along the Willamette River.

It took more than 100 years to pollute the Portland Harbor to the point where it was declared a national Superfund site.

Portland-area residents hope it will take considerably less time to restore the northernmost stretch of the Willamette River to a better condition.

Local residents, though, want something more than just clean water and unpolluted sediment following a river cleanup. They appropriately desire other benefits from one of this community's greatest resources.

Public attitudes about the Superfund cleanup process were measured recently by the Portland Harbor Partnership, with help from Portland State University. The results of 1,870 surveys reveal a certain wisdom from the citizenry about future uses of the Superfund area, which extends north of downtown from the Fremont Bridge to Sauvie Island.

People hope a cleaner river will mean greater recreational opportunities for activities such as fishing (for nourishment as well as fun), boating, picnicking, walking and biking. They also want to see the natural environment restored and preserved for wildlife and native species of plants.

Yet, even with their to-be-expected interest in recreation and the environment, Portlanders also recognize the river's tremendous economic value -- and they don't want to give that up either.

Industries -- many of them long gone -- were responsible for polluting the river, but that fact doesn't deter people from hoping more good-paying jobs can be attracted to the Portland Harbor. In the survey, a near perfect balance emerged among respondents, giving equal weight to public, private-sector and environmental uses of the river.

This call for a balanced approach will be a good theme to carry into the remainder of the Superfund process. The cleanup wheels have been turning slowly. The Portland Harbor was declared a Superfund site more than 11 years ago and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is still working on a proposed cleanup plan that's now scheduled to be released for public comment in 2013.

While Portlanders are understandably anxious to get restoration work started, this particular cleanup project is viewed as one of the most complex in the nation. Water and sediments along Portland Harbor are contaminated with many hazardous substances -- including heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxin and pesticides.

Despite the complexities, the day is getting nearer when the actual cleanup will begin -- at a cost that's estimated from $200 million to $2 billion. The eventual price will be higher if noncommercial values, such as river access, which is very limited in the industrial area, rise to the top of citizen priorities. Yet such amenities, even if they are more expensive than simply cleaning up the river, are clearly important to Portland residents.

The Portland Harbor Partnership and PSU have advanced the public discussion of the river's future by conducting this survey and laying out fairly plainly what the community desires.

Portlanders want from their river what they've always expected: access, recreation, natural habitat and, of course, jobs.

To learn more about the Portland Harbor Partnership and opportunities to be involved in the Willamette River cleanup process, visit www.portlandharborpartnership.com .