Cleaning up pollution in the Willamette River’s Portland Harbor Superfund site will be a complex, expensive and highly technical job, but all parties involved will first have to wrestle with two very basic questions: What level of cleanliness is required, and how much is it going to cost?

It is easy to say, as some in the environmental community have argued, that the river should be restored to a nearly pristine state and polluters should pay the price tag, no matter how high. We all would like to see a river where the fish are totally free of toxins and the water runs pure. Yet, the expense of maximum cleanup could be staggering. And here’s the dirty little secret about substances found in the lower Willamette River’s sediment: In some cases, the polluters are us.

Government agencies and utilities are among the “potentially responsible parties” that have contributed to the Portland Harbor’s contamination. That means as taxpayers and ratepayers we have to shoulder our share of the expense of removing PCBs and other substances. The higher the cost, the greater the burden will be on the public.

In the next few months, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will issue a Record of Decision that will guide the Willamette River Superfund cleanup process.

In our view, the EPA’s final plan should be flexible enough to allow for quick action in attacking the most polluted spots in the harbor.

Many interested parties — the city of Portland, industry groups, environmentalists and others —are weighing in on the topic by submitting comments about the EPA’s recommended Superfund plan released in June. The deadline for comments is Sept. 6.

The EPA’s proposed plan estimated the cleanup of a 10-mile stretch of river will cost $746 million. That number is likely to go higher, but it is in almost everyone’s interests to find cost-effective ways to restore the river.

One idea, backed by the Port of Portland and others, is to break the project into smaller pieces. In particular, the port would like to come to an agreement on two of the most polluted areas for which it bears responsibility: its Terminal 4 and the Swan Island Lagoon.

If the EPA allows this type of sequencing, the port could be among the first to start removing pollutants and set an example for others responsible for cleaning up at least 11 other hot spots in the river. Keeping costs down and providing certainty could head off — or at least minimize — court battles over who caused the pollution and to what extent.

Michael Jordan, director of the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services, believes 80 to 85 percent of the river’s contamination could be removed in the first seven years of a cleanup that focuses on the worst sites.

The question is whether that leaves too much of the job undone and, if so, where do you stop? If it costs upward of $1 billion to get rid of 85 percent of the unwanted substances, it could cost another $1 billion or much, much more to go the extra 15 percent.

Regardless of whether it is $1 billion or $3 billion, the cost of this Superfund project will be borne primarily by local agencies and businesses.

The EPA ought to move as quickly as it can to issue a final decision by the end of the year — one that is sensitive to the cost, allows expedited action on the most polluted spots and provides opportunities for the Portland-area work force to participate in one of the largest public works projects in the metro area for years to come.

From the standpoint of public health, environmental well-being and economic benefit, there’s not a lot to be gained by years of litigation.

The preferred route to a cleaner river requires diving into the water soon, with reasonable expectations, a clear objective and a strong sense of urgency.

Contract Publishing

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