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City Council to hold public hearing on Superfund cleanup plan

PHOTO  COURTESY WILLAMETTE RIVERKEEPER - EPA proposed a plan to finally clean up a 10-mile polluted stretch of the Willamette River on Wednesday, in one of the most complex projects ever done under the Superfund program. City Council members are declining to endorse or recommend changes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended Superfund plan for the Portland Harbor until the tail end of the 60-day public comment period.

The EPA proposed a $746 million cleanup plan for a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River last week. The federal agency proposes to dredge some 150 acres of the most polluted sediment on the river bottom, dredge and cap 17 more acres, cap another 64 acres and leave the polluted sediment in place, and rely on so-called “natural recovery” for the remaining 1,900 acres.

Some environmentalists and community activists say the proposal does not go nearly far enough. For example, Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper says 1,000 of the most polluted acres should be dredged.

“The people of Portland deserve a more robust plan. It needs to be much more robust for the health of people and wildlife,” says Williams, who does not know how much his proposal would cost.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Bureau of Environmental Services, says the council will withhold judgment until near the end of the 60-day public comment period. The city is potentially responsible for paying a yet-to-be determined portion of the cleanup costs, and BES has so far spent more than $50 million in ratepayer funds, advancing money to help cover early Superfund expenditures and prepare the city’s response.

“There is an EPA process for public comment and the council will weigh in on it, too, and I don’t want to get out ahead of that,” Fish says.

Commissioner Steve Novick does not endorse the EPA plan, but wants to know the public benefits of spending more money on the cleanup. The EPA also released a fact sheet last week with a range of cleanup options and their benefits. The most complete one totaled $9 billion.

“So, as EPA sees it, for $746 million, you get to eat carp, bass and catfish from the harbor five times a year, starting in seven years from the beginning of cleanup. For $1.7 billion, you get to eat carp, bass and catfish from the harbor 10 times a year, starting in 19 years from the beginning of cleanup,” Novick says.

The council will host a public forum to help shape its official response from 6 to 9 p.m. on June 30 at the Bauccio Commons at the University of Portland.

“We want to hear from the public before taking a position,” Fish says.

Regardless of where the city finally comes down, the final decision about the scope of the plan and who pays for it is up to the EPA.

Lowered cost estimates

The EPA proposed its seven-year plan last Wednesday to finally clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site. In a conference call with reporters, agency officials said they made few changes from a preferred alternative announced last November, but the price tag went way down from that nearly $1.4 billion proposal, largely due to reduced cost estimates.

“This offers a fairly balanced approach to achieve cleanup at the site. It also provides, I think, the most cost-effective approach,” says Jim Woolford, who directs remediation of cleanup sites for the national EPA.

Those on the hook for the cleanup cost were probably pleased by the decrease, although none said that publicly.

“We support the cleanup and want it to be complete enough that we’re not back here talking about it again in another 15, 25 or 40 years,” Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt told the City Club last week during a presentation on the port’s 125-year anniversary.

Wyatt said the port does not have a revenue source for paying its share of the cleanup costs, and expected to work with the state of Oregon — which is also potentially liable — on that in the future.

River wouldn’t be pristine

The EPA proposal, which now goes out for two months of public comments, involves dredging the most serious “hot spots” in the river, removing 1.9 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment. Much of that would be shipped to off-site landfills capable of handling toxic material.

In one of the most controversial aspects of the plan, EPA proposes to stow some of the contaminated sediment in a confined disposal facility in a side pocket of the river, essentially walling off part of the Willamette. That likely would take place at a Port of Portland boat slip near Terminal 4.

If the confined disposal option is eliminated, that would boost estimated cleanup costs up to $811 million.

Contamination in the river, which has accumulated over more than a century, has not resulted in any health concerns about eating salmon. But eating fish that feed near the contaminated sediment is considered a health hazard, and signs along the river now warn fishers of those risks.

Public comment period commences

The EPA, along with the city of Portland, hopes it can submit a final cleanup plan by December, before a new U.S. president and EPA administrator take office. Local environmental and neighborhood activists are seeking a longer comment period than 60 days.

Public comments on the plan can be mailed to: Attn Harbor Comments, US EPA, 805 S.W. Broadway St., Suite 500, Portland, 97205. They must be postmarked by Aug. 8.

Four public meetings to discuss the plan also have been scheduled, and more are likely among various community groups.

For more information go to EPA's website at: http://go.usa.gov/3Wf2B