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City says Superfund cleanup plan good enough, get moving

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PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO -  The McCormick and Baxter site on the Willamette River was cleaned up as part of an early action project in the Portland Harbor Superfund process. Most of the Superfund site has yet to be cleaned.Although city officials are requesting some changes to the proposed Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup plan, they believe it is mostly good enough and want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to approve it by the end of the year so work can begin as soon as possible.

And they want as much of the work as possible done locally to benefit the economy.

"We ask that the cleanup start as soon as possible and that every action is taken to ensure that our local community reaps the economic benefits of this cleanup. We want to see local companies and a local work force driving this project,” reads the cover letter to the city’s 30 pages of comments. Although the letter was reviewed and approved by all members of the City Council, it is signed by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Bureau of Environmental Services, which is assigned the lead on the cleanup.

Fish reiterated that position during a Friday interview with the Portland Tribune.

“Some will say the plan goes too far, some will say it doesn’t go far enough. It’s not perfect, but the city thinks it’s important to have a decision by the end of the year so it’s not delayed by the outcome of the presidential election,” he says.

In the letter, Hales and Fish say the proposed plan strikes an “important balance and will reduce 85 percent of human health risk when construction is complete.” They call that a cost-effective remedy, and compare it to the Big Pipe project that significantly reduced, but did not completely eliminate, all combined sewer overflows into the Willamette River.

“We now have a system that reduced combined sewer overflows into the river by 94 percent. The City had the option of taking that to 100 percent; however, reaching that final 6 percent reduction would have doubled the price tag. In our judgment, the benefits did not outweigh the costs,” says the letter.

According to BES Director Michael Jordan, “hot spots” in the harbor will be cleaned up more than 85 percent. They will include areas that are especially contaminated and where people enter the Willamette River to swim or fish, such as Cathedral Park in North Portland.

“A much greater commitment will be made when it comes to human health,” Jordan said during the same Friday interview.

Being able to concentrate on such areas are among the biggest changes the city is recommending in the plan, Jordan says.

“Instead of sequencing the cleanup top-to-bottom, we recommend it be broken into operable units that will let us get into the river quicker,” says Jordan, echoing the approach also favored by the Port of Portland and many of the businesses in the harbor.

The letter also says the city conducted extensive public outreach on the proposed plan, and that all feedback was reviewed and considered. Among other things, it helped persuade the city to oppose a proposed on-site Confined Disposal Facility to hold much of the contaminated soil dredged from the river.

Like many of the businesses at the harbor, city officials think the $746 million cleanup cost estimated by the EPA is unrealistically low. The letter says “cost estimates appear to be unreasonably optimistic and significantly underestimated. It is important that the community and parties involved in the cleanup have an accurate estimate of what the cleanup will cost and what to expect during the cleanup.”

But although city officials have asked for some more information on the cost estimates from the EPA, they are opposed to any additional extensive research that could delay the start of the work.

“Some people want to go back and do the feasibility studies again, but we want to get to work in the river,” Jordan says.

According to Fish and Jordan, the State of Oregon, which also is a potentially responsible party in the cleanup, agrees with the city’s position on the plan. Fish and Jordan say they would prefer the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality take the lead in overseeing the cleanup process. Although Fish admits DEQ has been criticized over its handling of the toxic air pollution problem in Portland, he says it has been a good partner on the Superfund cleanup process, including the handful of projects that already have been undertaken.

As much as anything, city officials hope that the cleanup process will not be delayed by politics, red tape or lawsuits.

“We want to spend our time and resources in the river, not in court,” says the letter.

To read the City of Portland's Proposed Plan and Comments, visit: bit.ly/2bKH3ys