Cleanup commitment continues during negotiation with final costs yet to be determined

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Negotiations are continuing with over 150 potentially responsible parties to pay for cleaning up and mitigating the pollution damage in the Portland Harbor Superfund site.Portland plans to spend nearly $5 million this fiscal year on the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup and mitigation project. Among other things, it will fund a public engagement process, partner with other governments on baseline sampling in the harbor, and evaluate high-priority restoration sites.

It is not yet clear how much the city will ultimately pay for the project, however. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated cleanup costs at $1.2 billion. It is supposed to be paid by over 150 potentially responsible parties who are believed to have contributed to the pollution.

But negotiations with the EPA over how much each party will pay are confidential and could take many years to complete.

Portland has already paid more than $50 million to help plan the cleanup and may pay much more to help complete it.

The same is true of the mitigation costs, which are done separately from the EPA in what amounts to a parallel process. That process, being overseen by the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council, may never produce a final cost figure. It is intended to compensate for the damage the pollution has done to wildlife and habitat in the harbor over the years.

The eventual total will be reported as a "unit of habitat value," according to Megan Callahan Grant, a marine habitat resource specialist assigned to the council process by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"After the settlement process has ended, we anticipate that the estimate, when complete, will be released publicly as part of the Injury Assessment Report. When the report is released, the Trustee Council's estimate of natural resource damages will be phrased in terms of units of habitat value, not in terms of dollars," Callahan Grant says.

Although those negotiations are still ongoing, Portland has already contributed $2.6 million to one authorized mitigation effort, the Alder Creek Restoration Project on Sauvie Island. There, project managers have dismantled an old sawmill and are reclaiming riparian, channel, tidal marsh and mud flat habitats to benefit native wildlife.

Other parties facing similar decisions include the state of Oregon, the Port of Portland, and dozens of former and current harbor businesses. All have been deciding whether to settle with the EPA and council early by agreeing to fund some of the first work. The EPA and council have the power to haul the others into federal court to force compliance, a process that could take many years to complete.

Like Portland, some parties have already made early commitments. They include Northwest Natural, which is funding the cleanup of a former gas manufacturing site. And at Gov. Kate Brown's request, the 2017 Oregon Legislature approved $10 million for harbor work.

It is impossible to know how much the cleanup and mitigation work will ultimately cost. The EPA cleanup estimate is just that, an estimate. Costs have risen at other superfund cleanup projects in the country.

And, as Megan Callahan Grant says, the mitigation costs will not be reported as a dollar amount.

Technically, the term is discounted-service-acre-year, or DSAY for short. According to NOAA, "a DSAY represents the value of all of the ecosystem services provided by one acre of the habitat in one year. Services for future years are discounted, placing a lower value on benefits that will take longer to accrue. Therefore, additional acres of habitat must be restored when restoration is delayed."

In other words, because the damage caused by the pollution is ongoing, the restoration cost rises when projects are delayed. That means parties have an incentive to settle early. Their DSAY costs will be less than for those parties who are ultimately made to pay in court.

One reason for the difference is the council is not a single government agency. Although established by federal law, it includes representatives of a number of organizations with interests in the harbor. They include: NOAA, acting on behalf of the U.S. Department of Commerce; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acting on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior; the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, acting on behalf of the state of Oregon; the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon; the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians; the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon; and the Nez Perce Tribe.

The public will finally be able to learn individual settlement costs when they are enterted into the court process. According to the city, after the allocation process is completed and approved by EPA, settlements will be embodied in consent decrees. At least 30 days before a proposed consent decree is lodged with the court, a notice will be published in the federal register giving an opportunity for public comments to be submitted.

At this point EPA will provide the information to the public. Portland will publicly present its settlement terms to council before it enters into the settlement. The Department of Justice will review the comments and may revise the consent decree if they determine that the terms are "inappropriate, improper or inadequate."

To see previous Portland Tribune coverage on the trustees' council, see

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