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Agency's official Record of Decision is released, requiring cleanup that will take 13 years, cost more than $1 billion


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The EPA announced a final cleanup plan for a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River known as the Portland Harbor Superfund site on Friday. It will cost more than $1 billion and 13 years to complete.Responding to overwhelming public sentiment from Portland residents, the EPA on Friday afternoon released a final cleanup order for the Portland Harbor Superfund site that is significantly more aggressive than the draft plan it proposed in June.

EPA's formal "Record of Decision" charts a 13-year cleanup plan costing more than $1 billion that would remove the most hazardous pollutants from a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River from the Steel Bridge north to Sauvie Island.

"It is a more protective remedy" than the draft plan, said Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle. "We're very excited that this is the right remedy."

"It looks to me like the EPA responded to the public comment that overwhelmingly called for a stronger, more robust plan," said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. "While this is not ultimately the level of dredging we asked for, this plan is something we can work with and will do a lot for reducing the risk from toxic pollutants in the Willamette." 

While the final numbers are subject to change based on new studies and changing river conditions, EPA proposes to dredge about 250 acres of contaminated sediment from the river bottom, said Cami Grandinetti, EPA program manager. That would require the removal of about 3 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated by industrial chemicals dumped into the river over the past century, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

While that's not nearly as much as most of the 5,300 people who submitted comments on the draft plan wanted, it moves closer to what they wanted.

The EPA draft plan would have removed 1.85 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river via dredging 167 acres. That plan was estimated to cost up to $811 million and take seven years.

McLerran said the final cleanup plan would remove about 1.2 million cubic yards more contaminated sediment than the earlier proposal, and add about 100 acres of "active recovery," which includes dredging, capping and enhanced natural recovery. "It will result in about a one-third increase in the active recovery area," McLerran said.

EPA calculated that there would be a "100-fold" reduction in health risks due to the cleanup plan, he said.

In addition to the dredging, about 175 acres of contaminated sediment will be capped with rocks or other materials to wall off contaminants from fish, birds and humans. About five linear miles along the riverfront will be capped with rocks and other material to protect the public from contaminated sediment.

Another 30 acres will get lighter treatment, so-called Enhanced Natural Recovery. For those sites and the rest of the river, the plan largely relies on Mother Nature taking its course. Over time, some of the sediment drifts downstream to the Columbia River.

The new plan abandons EPA's prior proposal to create a confined disposal facility, essentially a dump for contaminated sediment in the river, walled off from the main current.

About 90 percent of the people providing comments on EPA's draft plan wanted a more rigorous cleanup, said Jim Woolford, director of EPA's Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation in Washington D.C. The bulk of those people called for a much-stricter cleanup option dubbed by the EPA as Alternative G. That would have required removing 8.3 million cubic yards of sediment by dredging 525 acres of river bottom. It came with a price tag of $1.78 billion and a daunting timeline of 19 years to carry out.

EPA's regional and national staff evaluated the public sentiment for that option and ruled it out, Woolford said. "That was not really a cost-effective solution for the risk reduction you would get," he said.

Health concerns from eating fish

Once the cleanup plan is carried out, the EPA estimates that "fish advisories" now cautioning the public against eating too many resident fish will be reduced — though not eliminated — because some PCBs and other contaminants will remain in the river indefinitely.

Currently, the Oregon Health Division suggests that people eat no more than 8 ounces per month of the smallmouth bass, catfish, carp and other resident fish in the river. Salmon and other migratory fish are exempt from the advisory, as they don't spend much of their time among the muck on the river bottom where the chemicals are found.

However, Gov. Kate Brown was very concerned that immigrants, homeless people and others relying on the fish for subsistence might be getting too exposed to carcinogens and other unhealthy chemicals in the fish, said Richard Whitman, interim director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. As a result, the Oregon Health Division expects to come out with new warnings in the next few months that will be "much more protective than the current advisories are," Whitman said.

The new fish advisory is likely to warn people not to eat more than one resident fish per year, McLerran said. In contrast, after the 13-year cleanup is done, EPA projects that will be raised to 16 fish per year, he said.

Watershed approach

One of the new features in the approved plan is a call to take a greater look at watersheds, including the Columbia River's, to evaluate and contain future sources of pollutants that might enter the river and migrate, and to study areas where data is lacking. More studies will be done, in cooperation with the state and Native American tribes, using that strategy.

It's too soon to say if that will include Johnson Creek, McLerran said. The Portland Tribune earlier reported that PCBs stemming from a Precision Castparts operation have polluted Johnson Creek and could potentially find their way downstream into the Willamette.

Some of the new PCBs likely to enter the Portland Harbor Superfund site are coming from atmospheric deposits into the harbor, Whitman said.

Early action

The state of Oregon and several landowners along the river who are on the hook to pay cleanup costs have been urging the EPA to allow the 10-mile cleanup area to be broken up into more "operable units," so that work could proceed on certain areas sooner. For example, the Port of Portland had been angling to take charge of the cleanup of Swan Island, which was heavily polluted during World War II shipbuilding there.

The EPA rejected that idea, but is "willing to consider something short of that," Whitman said. "We feel the EPA has moved in our direction."

McLerran said the Record of Decision contains language allowing some projects to move forward earlier, led by parties willing to step up and help oversee some of the localized cleanup, under EPA's supervision. No particular sites have been named yet. The state will help the EPA on that effort, McLerran said.

Economy could benefit

The state of Oregon recently sent a letter to the EPA supporting the Record of Decision, Whitman said.

The state hopes to move as quickly as possible on the cleanup, to protect peoples' health and support economic development of the harbor area, where the impending Superfund project has cast a dark cloud over future use of the land and held back businesses from expanding.

"We have had land laying underutilized or not utilized in the harbor for decades now," Whitman said. The Superfund cleanup, he said, should enable what had been the heart of Portland's economy to once again assume a greater role.

Unfinished business

McLerran is a lame duck, about to leave his post to make way for new regional and national EPA administrators chosen by incoming President Donald Trump. The EPA wanted to finish its work on the Record of Decision, or ROD, before a new administration took over, in part because it was unfinished business after being in the works for 16 years.

Many local residents and officials also wanted the order finished and in place in case Trump takes a more lax attitude toward Superfund site cleanups.

The Record of Decision becomes the "legal document requiring the cleanup," said Jim Robison, chairman of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, EPA's official citizens committee for the Superfund project.

"It's a good thing they're getting it done before the administration changes," Robison said. The ROD would have "legal standing" no matter what Trump decides to do, he said. If it turns out that the new conservative-dominated Congress and Trump want to back off on enforcement, he said, more than 140 parties on the hook to pay cleanup costs could get off easy, he said.

Now that the Record of Decision is adopted, the EPA will work on a "remedial design," which will provide more specific directions on what cleanup methods to use for which precise locations, using guidelines in the ROD.

On a separate track, attorneys for the 140-plus potentially responsible parties are negotiating what each party should pay.

Find out more

EPA plans to host a community information session on the Record of Decision and present details of its final remedy in March. For more information, check the EPA's website at http://go.usa.gov/3Wf2B

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