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Time to do what is right for the Willamette

My View • Portland Harbors Superfund cleanup demands action, commitment


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK
Canadian geese hang out in the water in the lagoon at Swan Island, a superfund site on the Willamette River. Portland has so far spent $45 million in sewer funds studying how to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund sites. A My View writer believes cleaning the river is not only good for ecological and human health, but it can also help the local economy.Stretching from just upstream of the Fremont Bridge to nearly the Columbia River, the Portland Harbor Superfund site is massive.

This stretch of the Willamette River has contaminated river sediments and riverside areas that are highly polluted as well — resulting in a very necessary and significant task for those responsible for cleaning it.

The pollution comes from long years of industrial activity and municipal waste that polluted the riverside and the river bottom.

Within this area are PCBs, heavy metals, oil-based products and even the breakdown product of DDT, which at one time was manufactured along the Willamette.

This chemical stew was fully understood in the 1990s after a study by the state, eventually leading to the federal listing in December 2000 under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — commonly called the Superfund law.

Under Superfund, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has oversight of the cleanup of the river bottom, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has the lead, with EPA oversight, on the polluted riverside lands. Each of the agencies works with those who have responsibility for the cleanup — typically those who own the land where the pollution resides.

While the law can provide some funding where cleanup is contested or no entity exists to clean a site, the most important thing to know is that Superfund requires those responsible for cleaning the pollution to take action.

We own the river

Since 2000, this area of the river has been carefully studied, with EPA oversight, by some of those responsible for cleaning some portion of the site, initially a group of companies, along with the city of Portland and the Port of Portland.

Together they call themselves the Lower Willamette Group.

The information gathered in the past decade set the stage to develop a range of methods that can be used to clean the river. A feasibility study was released in March. The series of documents provides a host of possible actions to clean the river.

Today, the EPA is evaluating this massive collection of technical documents and maps to determine the best course, or if additional information is needed.

The EPA and the DEQ have worked diligently with multiple entities responsible for the cleanup, at times pushing them to do more on behalf of the river.

There are multiple options to clean the river that will be evaluated during the next few months. Chief among them is removing the contaminants from the river by dredging. This may be the preferred option for much of the contaminated stretch of river.

Also needed is quick action on the most polluted sites, such as at River Mile 11, on the east side of the Fremont Bridge, where some of the highest concentrations of PCBs are found.

What is needed is a willingness by those responsible for cleaning the harbor to get the job done, and to demonstrate a desire to do what is right for the river, and for the community.

While the economy is not robust, that is no excuse to have diminished expectations for this cleanup. The Willamette River and the people that use it have subsidized pollution for many decades now — and it is time to give back.

A recent study by the city of Portland shows that for every dollar invested in cleaning the Willamette’s Superfund site, more than a dollar will be generated in return for the local economy. Cleaning the river is not only good for ecological and human health, but it can also help the local economy!

While Superfund is not a perfect law, it represents a real opportunity for our community to benefit: with fish that are clean enough to safely eat, shorelines that are clean enough for recreation, and water clean enough to paddle and swim in.

We need to make the most of this opportunity and do the best job for the Willamette.

Because the Willamette River is a public resource, owned by everyone, we owe it aggressive action by those responsible for cleaning up the pollution.

The time is now to make that commitment, and to take action.


Travis Williams is executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. He is author of the Willamette River Field Guide and has worked on the Superfund issue for the past 12 years.