Our Opinion: Superfund cleanup must not be delayed
Those advocating for a cleanup of the Willamette River were alarmed by last week's news that the Trump administration has given industrial polluters a larger say in how they will clean up their toxic legacy in Oregon's iconic waterway.
So were we.
As detailed by Portland Tribune reporter Steve Law, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering allowing four of the Willamette's largest past polluters to head a key study that will provide a baseline for future efforts to remove contaminants from the river sediment.
It's key for companies that polluted the river to be involved in the cleanup. But river watchers say those believed to make up the Gang of Four tapped by EPA chief Scott Pruitt have until now seemed more intent on slowing down the cleanup of the Superfund site than finding solutions.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley told the Tribune he fears the secret deliberations may be intended to "unravel" years of work on the project.
At issue is who will pay for a new assessment of the river's health. Some past studies of sediment and toxicity levels in fish are now up to a decade old.
The Oregon Legislature earmarked $8 million to finance a new baseline study and the state, joined by the city of Portland and NW Natural (an industrial polluter) gave the EPA plans to do so in late May.
But as Law reported last week, EPA officials were secretly meeting with a group of industrial polluters who wanted to control the study.
The EPA refused to disclose the four companies involved but the Portland Tribune learned that one is Arkema, a chemical company based in France that once manufactured DDT on the river. The other members are thought to be Evraz, a Russian-owned steel company; Texas-based Exxon-Mobil; and an entity known as Marine Group, which may be more than one company.
The secrecy of the talks is troubling, particularly in a process in which trust and credibility are key.
It took the EPA more than 16 years to devise the river cleanup plan, released in the waning days of the Obama administration. The baseline study could take two years and then the actual cleanup is expected to take another 13 years.
Given that the EPA won't confirm the four entities making a pitch to fund the baseline study, it's hard for us to know if they can be trusted.
That's not the case with the proposal put forth by the city, state and NW Natural.
All three entities likely contributed to the pollution, which means they will be on the hook for cleanup costs. But unlike some of the other polluters, these three parties have strong connections to the Portland community and said from the start they want to clean up the river as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This is a key point, as every year that passes without mitigating the historic pollution is a year that halts needed development along the river.
Last summer, as the EPA was preparing its Record of Decision to guide the cleanup, we urged a practical approach that recognized that there is no longer a "fund" of federal money to mitigate Superfund sites. Rather, the cost will be borne primarily by local public agencies and private companies that polluted the river — in some cases decades ago.
As a result, we need a plan that acknowledges that the cost of removing all trace of pollutants is prohibitive, that avoids litigation and moves quickly to start mitigation in the river's most polluted areas.
If secret meetings with unnamed private out-of-state (and, likely out-of-country) interests produce a plan for a baseline study that achieves those goals and earns the backing of the city, state and local private polluters, it should be considered.
Otherwise, it should be viewed as a diversion that muddies the waters and slows down a project that should have started years ago.