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  • 1 Apr 2015

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Coming clean

Ex-Portlander worries that toxic materials were dumped near river a decade ago

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Former resident Norman Wicks Sr. never reported what he thought was toxic waste dumping on this site more than a decade ago. During a brief layover in Portland, he wants to see the site checked out and cleaned up if necessary. Something’s been gnawing away at Norman Wicks’ conscience ever since he left Portland nearly a decade ago.

The 70-year-old is back in town for a brief spell, hoping to right a past wrong.

Homeless and living out of a travel trailer years ago, Wicks and his son, Norman Wicks Jr., spent much of their time here hanging out at a secluded spot on the Willamette riverbank north of Linnton, a Portland neighborhood in the industrial belt off Highway 30. It was a great place to swim, fish or conduct their work taking apart and recycling computers — with no one to bother them. Sometimes they’d build bonfires and spend the night, driving their trailer onto the dirt access road that leads to three giant Bonneville Power Administration electric transmission towers next to the river. 

“I always liked this spot because it was so out of the way and peaceful,” Wicks says.

About 15 years ago, they noticed one or two 50-gallon barrels showed up, plopped next to one of the BPA towers. During the next year and a half, more barrels kept showing up. Wicks checked them out and found they were too heavy to budge, and they smelled kind of like creosote. He recalls at least 15 barrels, but says his son’s recollection may be more reliable.

“I remember there being stacks of them,” says Norman Wicks Jr., now in his late 30s. “I swear there was at least 50 of them.”

One day they arrived at their hangout and found three men wearing white hard hats, who waved them off the property.  

“We saw a big backhoe and a big hole being dug,” the elder Wicks says. “The next time we went there, the barrels were gone, and the hole was covered over. In my mind, it was toxic substances or they wouldn’t be burying it.”

Wicks isn’t blaming anyone for the mysterious burial because he doesn’t know who did it.

But the answer to the mystery may be mundane. State environmental officials say the barrels might have been the product of a cleanup effort along the Willamette River stemming from firefighters training to battle oil fires, something officials were checking on Monday.

Wicks is a man with strong convictions. When his son’s mother decided she didn’t really want to raise a child, Norman Sr. raised him from birth as a single father. In 2000, when the two were cited for sleeping in their truck, they challenged Portland’s anti-camping ordinance and a judge overturned it.

But when they observed the pit being dug near the BPA towers, the father and son were trespassers, and didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. Wicks Sr. also had a history of run-ins with the Portland Police Bureau. After he claimed to be a victim of police brutality, he began taking videos of police interactions with citizens, and joining with other police critics and protesters.

The police, Wicks claims, retaliated by giving him parking tickets whenever possible, which eventually caused him and his son to leave Portland for California back in January 2005.

He never reported what he saw at the BPA property, but he couldn’t quite get it out of his mind. “I felt bad about it for years living down in California,” he says. “I said to myself I should have done something years ago.”

“I hate to think that it could be seeping into the river,” says Norman Wicks Jr.

Several weeks ago, Wicks and his son were passing through Portland en route to Missouri when their truck’s transmission blew out. They decided to spend a few months here fixing the vehicle and waiting until spring when driving conditions got better.

They went back to their old hangout, and noticed the area where the pit was dug remains covered with grass, but no other foliage, in contrast to the surrounding area.

“All the other areas there have new growth; that shouldn’t be because this is a wild area,” Wicks says. “I just had to tell somebody.”

Wicks contacted the Portland Tribune, and guided a reporter and photographer to the site.

A gate across the BPA access road remains unlocked, so anyone can walk onto the relatively isolated property or drive a vehicle onto the road. Much of the site is covered with trees or other thick brush, with the exception of a couple grassy areas, including the one where Wicks and his son swear the barrels were buried.

Wicks insists he has no ax to grind, and says he’d take a lie detector test if anyone doubts him.

“I swear by everything that I hold sacred that that’s what I saw,” he says.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ALVARO FONTAN - An aerial view shows the BPA towers near the Willamette River north of Linnton and a grassy area where Norman Wicks thinks toxic waste was buried.

Agencies respond

Told by a reporter of Wicks’ allegations, officials from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Bonneville Power Administration promised to look into them. DEQ takes such citizen observations seriously, says Keith Johnson, cleanup program manager for the state agency’s Northwest region.

“That could be a serious dumping violation,” he says.

Even if the property owner didn’t put anything toxic into the soil, the DEQ wouldn’t be excited about someone burying entire barrels under the ground, Johnson says.

BPA has 15,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the Northwest, so it’s not uncommon for people to dump things on its right of way, says Mike Hansen, agency spokesman. The agency hasn’t confirmed yet if it leases the property or owns it outright, he says.

Two BPA staffers went to inspect the site Friday, and they didn’t find anything out of the ordinary, Hansen relayed. Then Johnson found something in DEQ’s records that might explain the mystery, an old cleanup known as the Linnton Oil Fire Training Grounds project.

Portland Fire & Rescue leased land near the electric transmission towers from the BPA for training firefighters between 1951 and 1988, and those operations resulted in contamination. A cleanup project culminated in 1998-99, Johnson says.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Norman Wicks is convinced that this site contains buried barrels of toxic waste. Its possible, though, that the suspect material was part of a supervised cleanup of contamination from Portland firefighter training.  “There may be a normal explanation for this,” he says. It could be that contaminated soil was treated according to plan and placed in barrels, then dumped legally from the barrels into the soil and buried, Johnson says.

Neither Wicks nor his son actually saw barrels being buried; when they returned to the site the pit was filled and the barrels were gone. But Wicks remains deeply distrustful of authority.

“None of this sounds right,” he says when told of the Linnton Oil Fire Training Grounds cleanup.

He never saw any cleanups taking place on the land. And though some details are hazy in his memory, he now insists the pit was dug and filled in 2001, after he and his son won a lawsuit against the anti-camping ordinance. That would be two years after DEQ records show the site cleanup was completed.

Johnson says he’ll try to do more research, and talk to former DEQ staffers who were involved in the Linnton cleanup. BPA says it will take its cues from DEQ for now.

Though Wicks remains skeptical, his conscience is cleared.

“I did what I thought was right,” he says.