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History of a Superfund cleanup bid

by: L.e. baskow, A sign at Kelley Point Park warns of pollution dangers near the Willamette River’s confluence with the Columbia River.

The Portland Harbor was listed as a Superfund site in December 2000. The federal program cleans hazardous waste from areas where it could pose a threat to people and ecosystems. Regulated releases and spills from industry, runoff from city streets, sewage overflows and contaminated groundwater along the shores of the Willamette River all have caused pollution in the water and the riverbed that has accumulated during the last 100 years. According to a report by the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council, a group set up by Superfund law, the pollutants include metals, agrochemicals and petroleum. They also include dioxins; rocket fuel; polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; pesticides and related products, including DDT and herbicides; plus volatile organic compounds like benzene. Many of the products are carcinogens, or can otherwise endanger human health. The pollution stems from the area’s history of lumber and steel mills, tank farms, rail yards and docks, petroleum storage, raw materials handling, marine repair and fueling, and manufacture and storage of chemicals, paint, asphalt and tar. In the 1940s, warships were built in the Portland Harbor. Recreational boating also takes its toll. In Portland, the Environmental Protection Agency supervises cleanup of the harbor. Studies that direct cleanup are conducted by a group known as the Lower Willamette Group, a collection of 14 public and private agencies that were notified with 55 other agencies that they were potential polluters when the EPA first began work on the site. A separate group of potentially liable polluters, known as the Blue Water Group, recently joined the study effort. The participation of all is voluntary but has legal benefits in the long term. Chip Humphrey, remedial project manager at the EPA, oversees the harbor Superfund site. Humphrey said there are easily more than 100 polluters who someday could be tapped to fund cleanup of the Portland Harbor when it begins, theoretically in fall 2010. Before a decision is made on how to clean the area, pollution still entering the Willamette River from the shore must be controlled. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality manages those sites as part of the Superfund program and is working toward controls on about 50. Seventeen are considered a high priority. Two of the 17 were considered so hazardous that early cleanup was required. Those sites were Gasco, a predecessor of today’s NW Natural, where 15,000 tons of tar were removed from the harbor, a byproduct of fuel production. The other site is Arkema, formerly Atofina Chemical, an old chemical manufacturing plant that made DDT, a harmful pesticide. Meanwhile, the harbor is in rough ecological shape. Fish consumption advisories have been issued for resident fish and crawfish, and toxins in river water exceed standards that protect aquatic life in fresh water. Various studies have documented metals and other contaminants in fillets. Consuming the fish could cause reproductive injuries to animals that eat them, including humans.