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EPA finally releases proposed Superfund cleanup plan, with lower cost estimates

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. The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday proposed a seven-year plan to finally clean up the 10-mile Portland Harbor Superfund site, at an estimated cost of $746 million.

EPA officials, in a conference call with reporters, 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," said Jim Woolford, who directs remediation of cleanup sites for the national EPA.

The proposal is likely to be well-received by many business groups on the hook for paying the costs of cleanup, as well as city of Portland leaders. Those groups, including city sewer ratepayers, have already spent more than $100 million combined on technical studies and other work during the past 15 years.

The plan is likely to be opposed by environmental and neighborhood groups, and Native American tribes, who advocate more extensive cleanup of the river.

“The people of Portland deserve a more robust plan. It needs to be much more robust for the health of people and wildlife," said Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper.

The EPA proposal, which now goes out for 60 days 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.

Some 150 acres of river bottom would be dredged, while 17 acres would be dredged with caps put in to cover sediments that wouldn’t be removed. Another 64 acres would be capped.

For about 1,900 acres, EPA would rely largely on so-called "natural recovery," using deposits of sand and other materials to allow contaminants to dissipate slowly over time. Such natural recovery is expected to take at least two decades.

The plan includes a controversial proposal to use a confined disposal facility in the river, essentially walling off part of the river to stow contaminated sediment in the river. That likely would take place at a Port of Portland site near Terminal 4.

If the confined disposal option is eliminated, that would boost 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.

The cleanup proposal would not eliminate such concerns, due to continuing problems with PCBs and other contaminants. However, it would allow modifications in current fish advisories, over time, suggesting that people could eat more fish than is recommended now.

The advisories are likely to recommend eating no more than five resident fish a year after the active cleanup is done, but up to nearly 20 fish a year decades from now, EPA officials said.

The federal agency, 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, OR 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 go.usa.gov/3Wf2B