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Divvying up the Superfund cleanup

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COURTESY PORT OF PORTLAND  - The Swan Island Lagoon will be among the most costly Superfund cleanup areas. The Port of Portland says it can lead the effort,  and do it cheaper than the EPA. It took 16 years for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose a cleanup plan for the Portland Harbor Superfund site, a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River laden with toxins dumped by more than 100 entities over the past century.

Now, as the EPA nears the close of a 90-day comment period on its plan, it must decide how to proceed with the actual cleanup work.

The Port of Portland, state of Oregon, NW Natural and other players in the long-running saga have some advice: Divide the Superfund cleanup into smaller, bite-size projects.

Trying to have one massive cleanup involving 10 miles of river and more than 140 polluters and other “potentially responsible parties” is a “fool’s errand,” says Jessica Hamilton, the Port of Portland’s general manager for harbor environmental work. Hamilton fears the project could become mired in legal fights among those players, delaying real cleanup.

“If nothing starts until everything starts, then it’s going to be a really long time,” says Tom Imeson, NW Natural’s vice president for public affairs.

The port, NW Natural and other groups on the hook for the cleanup say they’re ready to start soon, tackling areas of the river where they likely bear the most responsibility for the cleanup. They want the EPA to do what it has done in other Superfund projects around the country: Divide the cleanup into smaller chunks, known as “operable units.”

Richard Whitman, Gov. Kate Brown’s natural resources policy adviser, called the idea a “practical point of view” at a

recent Columbia Corridor Association panel discussion on the Superfund.

Many businesses on the hook to pay for pollution cleanup generally like the idea, figuring it gives them a chance to do their part and then move on, ridding themselves of a financial, legal and land-use cloud that’s put their operations in a bit of limbo for 16 years.

But some environmentalists and neighborhood representatives, who aren’t on the hook to pay for the cleanup, are leery of the idea, worried it’s a way for polluters to lower their cleanup tabs.

Outlines in place

The EPA already has mapped out 13 “sediment decision units” in the Superfund site, areas where there are concentrations of PCBs or other toxins. Those geographic areas could be turned into operable units, Hamilton says, with the EPA delegating responsibility to entities located near those sites.

The port is prepared to lead the charge on the Swan Island and Terminal 4 sites, where it knows it has major liabilities, she says.

Negotiating with five to 12 players to organize and finance a localized cleanup is more doable, she says. “That’s a much simpler process than doing it with 140 parties, none of whom can agree on anything.”

The Port of Portland and NW Natural also are involved in ongoing, confidential talks among the 140 potentially responsible parties for how to allocate costs for the cleanup. The operable units approach has been explicitly discussed by those parties as they negotiate who is responsible for what pollution and what costs, Imeson says.

That process is designed to head off litigation among the 140 parties, Hamilton says. “If it’s not successful, you’ll have many decades, I think, of covering this in court.”

Delegating oversight

There is no fund left in the federal Superfund program, as money for toxic cleanups was exhausted long ago. Now the EPA contracts with parties to take the lead, such as the Lower Willamette Group, a consortium of 14 entities including the Port of Portland, NW Natural, city of Portland and others that have financed and led the Superfund process to date.

Members of the Lower Willamette Group hope the EPA will continue to delegate authority to local entities and assign parties to take charge of each operable unit. Some want the EPA to grant an oversight role to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Jack Isselmann, a senior vice president for external affairs and programs at The Greenbrier Companies, prefers having the DEQ oversee some of the in-river cleanup instead of the EPA. EPA decisions often “come from very far away,” in Seattle or Washington D.C., Isselmann says, and the agency often lacks an understanding of local conditions and needs.

Skepticism

But giving local players more flexibility, and having the DEQ oversee them instead of the EPA, doesn’t sit as well with some of the environmental and community groups.

“As a general concept, I don’t mind the idea of breaking it down into operable units, so that work can be done effectively in one place,” says Jim Robison, chairman of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, EPA’s officially designated citizens panel. The idea of breaking the 10-mile site into smaller Superfund projects has long been discussed, Robison says.

However, he adds, “I wouldn’t want that to be an avenue for them to do less of an effective cleanup.”

DEQ understands the terrain better than the EPA, but it also has “close relationships with the industries along the river,” Robison says. “They might not be inclined to crack down” as much as the EPA, he says.

Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, suspects the Port of Portland and NW Natural are motivated by self-interest rather than what’s best for the river.

“The Port of Portland has continually worked against the EPA in this process,” Williams says. “At this point, it’s more gamesmanship by the Port of Portland to get something they can control. I think proposals of this type can be dangerous because they are clearly angling for something that is less expensive,” he says.

All along, there’s been a tug between the state DEQ and the federal EPA for how the project should be managed, Williams says.

“I think the state has been angling; they really want to implement parts of this cleanup,” Williams says. But the EPA has a lot more expertise in managing toxic cleanups in water, he says.

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COURTESY PORT OF PORTLAND  - The Portland Harbor Superfund site is dotted with large industrial employers along the river. The circled area is the Swan Island Lagoon.

Port lays out cleanup plan for Swan Island if it gets EPA nod

In the frantic military buildup after the U.S. entered World War II, Uncle Sam commissioned Henry Kaiser’s company to build ships at Portland’s Swan Island.

From 1942 to 1949, the Swan Island Shipyard was used to build 147 T2 oil tankers, and for ship repair, retrofitting ships for later use in Korea, and scrap others when they were no longer needed.

Polychlorinated biphenyls are a great fire retardant, so PCBs were amply used on the ships’ paint, insulation, transformers, hydraulic fluid and caulking, says Jessica Hamilton, the Port of Portland general manager for harbor environmental work. Those PCBs still foul the sediment in the Swan Island Lagoon, and elsewhere along the 10-mile long Portland Harbor Superfund site.

Now the Port of Portland says it’s ready to finally clean up those PCBs and other toxics in the lagoon, if the EPA will let it commence work. To do that, the Port is urging the EPA to allow the massive Superfund site to be broken up into more bite-sized “operable units,” and let the Port manage the unit at Swan Island.

“Let us get started” on Swan Island, says Curtis Robinhold, the Port’s deputy executive director.

Swan Island is really a “bathtub” of water that doesn’t mix much with the Willamette River flow, Robinhold says, so it’s an ideal place to begin Superfund cleanup in advance of other projects.

The catch is the Port wants some flexibility to manage cleanup of the 120-acre site, and hopes it can do it much more cheaply than the EPA’s proposal.

The EPA cleanup plan released in June calls for dredging 800,000 to 1 million cubic feet of sediment over about 50 acres of the lagoon, says Kelly Madalinski, the Port’s environmental program manager. The Port calculates the EPA proposal would cost $211 million to $297 million, while it could do the job and get similar results for less than $100 million.

That’s somewhat ironic considering the Port charges the EPA underpriced the costs of its cleanup plan.

But the Port figures it can reduce the price by reducing the amount of dredging in the lagoon. The EPA presumed the entire lagoon is needed for navigation, but the Port says the southern half isn’t really used or needed for navigation, so capping the contaminants can be done instead of removing them.

Putting a one-foot layer of sand mixed with carbon would be used in some of that area, if the Port gets its way. The carbon binds to the PCBs so it’s not bio-available to the fish that swim in the lagoon, Madalinski says. “You can eliminate the pathway to the fish.”

Properties around the southern half of the lagoon include Daimler, which has a wind tunnel for truck manufacturing, Becker Trucking, and others — none of whom use the lagoon for river navigation, port staff say.

Roughly 12 entities, known as potentially responsible parties, will likely be on the hook to pay for cleanup of Swan Island, Hamilton says. She figures it’s easier to get those parties to form their own project, and let the Port manage it, instead of waiting for the main Superfund cleanup to begin, which could be bogged down by legal fights.

Those parties include the U.S. Navy and Kaiser, as well as companies and government entities that had sewage outfalls that polluted the lagoon over the years.

The Port figures it can get the federal government to foot much of the bill, which suits the Port because it doesn’t have the cash to advance for the cleanup. The federal money wouldn’t need to be approved by Congress and get tied up in gridlock. That’s because it would come from a special Judgement Fund, which gets money from various legal settlements, Hamilton says.

She takes issue with those Portlanders who say pollution of the Portland Harbor was done by evil multinationals who should be charged to pay for the cleanup.

“If you think of the war effort,” she says, “this really drives home that this is a collective responsibility.”

But the Port still needs to get the go-ahead from the EPA to break up the Superfund into smaller projects, and overcome opposition from environmentalists and neighbors who think the Port is merely angling to do the job on the cheap.

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