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Industry must do its share in cleaning river

Post Script • River Plan complaints unfair; plan balances environment and business
by: L.E. BASKOW, A new city plan to regulate and redevelop the area around the Willamette River in North and Northwest Portland is drawing criticism from some businesses in the area. But a leader of the Audubon Society of Portland writes that industry criticism is unfounded.

Jim Redden's article 'River Plan Draws Groans' (July 2) trots out a litany of clichéd industry arguments against establishing baseline ecological standards for the North Reach of the Willamette River.

Once again, our community is being told that restoring our river to health will cost jobs and drive industry from our region. The arguments are predicable, but disappointing - because the River Plan actually creates a framework for real ecological progress in the North Reach while also substantively responding to many of the concerns expressed by industry over the course of two years of intense negotiations.

Crying 'jobs and the economy' has become a predicable cover for the fact that many of our local industrial landowners simply do not believe that they have an obligation to help restore landscapes that their activities helped degrade.

Lost among the lamentations is the fact that this River Plan promises $586 million in public funding for road and other infrastructure improvements to support industrial landowners, $441 million of which is 'expected to be funded in the next ten years.' In six months of hearings before the Portland Planning Commission, I cannot recall hearing industry recognize this massive subsidy a single time. Perhaps if industry is unwilling to step up and contribute to restoring the health of our environment, that half billion dollars worth of publicly funded industrial infrastructure improvements should be redirected toward the environment.

It is particularly disappointing to see the Port of Portland once again using its publicly funded resources to carry water for the Working Waterfront Coalition, a small group of private industrial landowners. The port is a public agency with a far broader mandate to serve the public good, rather than the narrow interests in which it is currently aligned. The port should be helping to lead the working harbor towards ecologically responsible stewardship of the landscape, not signing onto industry letters that perpetuate a false choice between jobs and the environment.

The Working Waterfront Coalition's blanket rejection of the River Plan fails to acknowledge many substantive concessions that were made to industry.

Several miles of riverbank that were regulated under the existing greenway code will no longer be regulated. Property owners will for the first time have flexibility as to whether they conduct required restoration activities on their own properties or utilize offsite mitigation banks. The city is installing a new streamlined process to ensure the local, state and federal environmental mandates are coordinated and complementary. Finally, property owners even have an option of bypassing the River Plan code by working with the city to develop specific site plans for their own properties.

Regarding cost, industry is being asked to do three things: clean up and restore damage caused by past releases of contaminants into the environment; contribute a small portion of the cost of habitat restoration; and mitigate for any significant impacts that they have on the environment in the future.

The choice is stark: we can either ask industry to help pay a portion of the costs for environmental damage that they caused, pass more of the costs onto the taxpayers, or simply accept that our river will remain unhealthy into the foreseeable future.

The bottom line is that the North Reach of the Willamette River remains a degraded toxic soup unfit for humans or wildlife - the most degraded stretch of river in Oregon and one of the most degraded stretches of river in the United States.

The River Plan is far from perfect. We have deep reservations about several elements, most notably the relatively small contribution that the plan requires of industry toward river restoration objectives. However, we also recognize that a plan of this scope and complexity will never achieve perfection or consensus straight out of the starting gate.

It is time to take this plan, several years in the making and six months under review before the planning commission, out for a test drive. Concerns among all stakeholders are best addressed not by perpetual public debate, but rather though on-the-ground implementation coupled with a schedule for review and revision as the plan's true strengths and weaknesses are revealed.

Bob Sallinger is conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. He lives in Northeast Portland.