Port inches closer to realizing scope of industrial site cleanup

by: PORT OF ST. HELENS - After Pope and Talbot declared bankruptcy in 2007, the Port of St. Helens was left shouldering the burden of a government-mandated cleanup of the contaminated property.The Port of St. Helens is inching closer to finding a solution for a contaminated industrial site that was first slated for cleanup after an Environmental Protection Agency investigation more than 15 years ago.

Efforts to study the property and develop a cleanup plan to appease the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality slowed almost to a halt after the original landowner, Pope and Talbot, declared bankruptcy in 2007.

Kurt Harrington, the port’s consultant from AMEC in Portland, walked port commissioners through a map of the riverfront Railroad Avenue property in St. Helens at a meeting last month. A red-pink blob spreading like a blush over the property indicated the area where the contamination is most concentrated.

“You’re always going to have contamination,” he said. “We’ve drawn a nice circle around it, but in reality it fingers out all over the place.”

Cleanup plan came in 1995

The Department of Environmental Quality, following an initial investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 that turned up concerning levels of the wood preservative creosote, had ordered Pope and Talbot, as the previous landowner, and the Port of St. Helens, as the current landowner, to craft a cleanup feasibility plan in 1995.

Both entities planned to shoulder the cost of any cleanup, with Pope and Talbot taking the lion’s share of the responsibility since, argued the port, it was likely the company’s wood treatment operations that had contaminated the site in the first place.

The port hefted roughly 10 percent of the responsibility, said Paula Miranda, Port of St. Helens deputy executive director.

But if the contaminated land was a hot potato being passed back and forth, Pope and Talbot’s bankruptcy filing acted as a particularly forceful toss. The port was left holding the potato in both hands.

‘Is this ever going to end?’

A number of studies already completed by Pope and Talbot had to be done again. In addition, DEQ rejected an earlier cleanup plan submitted when the company was still in business. It was missing key in-water work information, according to Deborah Bailey, project manager for DEQ.

After dealing with the site for over 15 years, the question voiced by Port commissioners at a Sept. 26 meeting was, “Is this ever going to end?”

“We’re just about done,” Bailey said in an interview with The Spotlight.

But “being done” and “paying for it” are two very different things, said Miranda and Port Executive Director Pat Trapp.

Or, as Port Commissioner Mike Avent said, “Without any partners in paying any other side of it, I don’t know if the end will be a good thing.”

For the port and the commission, the frustration stems from being held financially responsible for a problem they don’t believe they caused.

“As much as we can, we want to be good stewards of the environment,” Miranda said. “But we’re working with public funds for something we didn’t cause.”

Cleanup could cost up to $15 million

Miranda said when the port purchased the land in 1963, the agency knew there was likely some contamination from previous operations but times were different then.

“They didn’t monitor for things back then in the way (they do now),” said Commissioner Colleen DeShazer at September’s meeting. “And we bought the property.”

“If we defer this to some other agency, it’s still the tax payers, one way or the other,” she said.

DEQ estimates the cleanup will cost around $10 to $15 million. The port puts the estimate at $5 to $8 million and hopes it will cost even less. But it’s hard to say for sure until the Port of St. Helens presents DEQ with a feasibility study, listing different cleanup options, Miranda said.

“They’ll propose a remedy,” Bailey said. “As long as it meets the requirements of the project, we’ll agree to that.”

She said DEQ would likely be satisfied with a contamination control plan, but a more complete — and more expensive — cleanup option would be to “just dig the whole thing up.”

However, she added, as long as DEQ can state the remedy will protect human and marine health, “there can be a choice to just contain [the contamination].”

Whatever the cleanup plan looks like in the end, she said, “It’ll be a pretty big undertaking.”

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