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Area polluted for decades; now slow cleanup begins

The hugely expensive and agonizingly slow cleanup of the Portland Harbor gets all the attention, but a lesser-known area of the Lower Columbia also is slated for an environmental makeover. 

Scappoose Bay, 30 miles north of Portland between Sauvie's Island and St. Helens, is popular with fishermen and paddlers, and its soggy shores are home to blue heron, frolicking dogs and their owners. It’s also home to three industrial sites being investigated by Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality for potential pollution cleanups.

The bay leads into the Multnomah Channel, which in turn merges with the Columbia River. It’s one of the last functioning, tidally influenced bays in the United States and the only one on the Willamette River — farmers have dammed and diked all the others.

by: MAP COURTESY OF OREGON DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY  - St Helens Scappoose Bay Waterfront Property OwnershipOne of the three sites is on the west bank of the Multnomah Channel, one on the shores of Scappoose Bay proper, and the third straddles both. Each is a reminder of the old days, a Lorax-type time when toxic waste landed where it fell or was sent to the nearest river.

The sites include a closed-down Boise Cascade pulp and paper mill, a former St. Helens Creosote plant, and an Armstrong World Industries fiberboard manufacturing plant.

Undoing the damage is a tedious, expensive process, driven by bureaucrats and activists. 

For Deborah Bailey, a project manager in DEQ’s cleanup program, these are just three of twelve sites she is working on.

She cautions that it’s a slow process, which includes assessing liability, testing for pollutants, taking public comments, and seeing whether cleanup is even feasible.

"I anticipate there's some cleanup to be done at each of the three projects, but I don't know what at this point," Bailey says. She doesn’t expect it to happen for at least two years due to the unique challenges of each site.

Pollutants at the three sites have the potential to impact "aquatic receptors," that is, life forms in the water. To DEQ it’s important to track the pollution as it moves within a water body, because of the potential to impact fish that may be consumed by the public as well as birds, mammals or other fish. 

Contaminated sites abound

Cleaning up the industrial core of Oregon is a gigantic undertaking.

There are around 100 land-based sites being investigated for cleanup just at the Portland Harbor, within a mile or two of Swan Island. DEQ has a database of 5,000 cleanup sites throughout the state, and that doesn’t count the 15,000 to 20,000 leaks from underground residential heating oil tanks.

“Of the 5,000, about one third have been cleaned up, and there's 400 we're working on," says Gil Wistar of DEQ, who manages the database.

DEQ doesn’t have funds for cleanup — that’s paid for by the landowners — it makes sure they do it right. 

"But we do contact local folks and ask what they see as the potential for those properties in the future,” Wistar says. “It's great to see local folks and activists trying to benefit from cleaned-up sites."

Reclaiming waterfront

The Scappoose Bay Paddling Center is housed in a metal building near the jetty in Warren. It’s also home to the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council. Unlike Columbia Riverkeepers, which gets involved in policy and has the power to sue, this is a nonprofit devoted to education and preservation. Funds come from grants or the state; most of the money is connected to saving wild salmon. 

"A lot of watershed councils are the community builders," says Scappoose Bay Watershed Council Coordinator Janelle St. Pierre. "We're neutral. We're happy to help people figure out who they need to talk to. We don't weigh in, but we do help with creative solutions."

St. Pierre and her staff can take a lunchtime stroll along the trails, where small creeks flow to the bay through saturated grass in winter, or explore in the council’s canoe. Walking on the shore, past multiple dog walkers, she points out a large blue heron, and logs stranded 50 yards by tides.

"The question is 'Where is St. Helen's going?' " she says. "There's waterfront potential, but the community is still trying to decide what their opportunities are."

St. Claire worked on the St. Helens Waterfront Development Prioritization plan of 2011, which lists goals of improving waterfront access, sprucing up beaches, starting a shuttle service and improving "Old Towne" St Helens — reclaiming some of the city's quaint identity which it lost to the dull strip of Highway 30. Some of the industrial land might one day be rezoned for waterfront property.  

St. Pierre is optimistic about the cleanup. "Everyone is cooperating, and folks are trying to be transparent, which is good," she says. 

The Port of St Helens is in the business of attracting companies to its land, which includes 52 miles of riverfront.  Executive Director Patrick Trapp follows the goings-on at the old creosote plant closely, but points out it’s only one of the Port's properties in that stretch.  

"Any property with a maritime nexus and the ability to create and sustain jobs is going to be important. But we are not going to put any (tenant) in there that impacts the environment. We will be transparent with everyone."

Scappoose Bay is not top of mind in the larger scheme of Oregon’s brownfields, but it’s a reminder that remediation is going on all over the state, in a patchwork of projects that try to address a century of pollution. 

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