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EPA: After 16 Years, Get Ready To Comment On Portland Harbor Cleanup


Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, holds sand from the banks of the Willamette River in the Portland Harbor. 

Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, holds sand from the banks of the Willamette River in the Portland Harbor. 

Allison Frost/OPB

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to release its proposed Portland Harbor Superfund Site cleanup plan early next month.

The plan, 16 years in the making, will include the agency’s preferred option for cleaning up a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River that’s highly contaminated from more than a century of industrial use. The EPA has spent years investigating the site and developing a range of options for reducing contamination to an “acceptable” level.

Cami Grandinetti, a project manager for the EPA, said a lot of information about what’s at the site is already available, including levels of contamination and human health and environmental risks.

So, she said, you can start reading all about it — right now.

“This has been a long process with a lot of investigation and analysis,” Grandinetti said. “There is a tremendous amount information out there that will take some time for people to wade through. We’re really stressing that people should start now.”

Grandinetti said people can find out online where the contamination is, who is at risk, what the different cleanup options are and how people might be affected.

“With that information in hand, they’ll be in a much better position in April to evaluate and provide EPA with comment on the proposed cleanup,” she said.

Some clean up has been done along the 11 miles of polluted Willamette River in the 15 years since the the Superfund designation, but much work awaits the EPA's final clean up plan, still being developed. Here are some photos from around the McCormick and Baxter site, one of the first to be cleaned up.

The EPA and community groups are holding informational meetings to help people prepare for the upcoming public comment period. The EPA will hold a meeting 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group will also hold a public forum 7–9 p.m. Tuesday at Immaculate Heart Church Hall.

Most of the contamination across the Portland Harbor site is in the sediment at the bottom of the river. The EPA has found 65 contaminants of concern, including heavy metals, pesticides such as DDT, herbicides, dioxins and furans from burning, chemical manufacturing and metal processing waste, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a banned coolant found in building materials and ink, and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) released through burning coal, oil, gas and wood.

The biggest risk to people, according to the EPA, is from eating resident fish such as bass, catfish and carp that accumulate the toxins when they eat insects that live in the contaminated sediment.

The state has fish advisories and guidelines on how much fish is safe to eat. Because of the health risks from contamination, mothers and children should avoid eating resident fish from the Willamette between Sauvie Island and the Fremont Bridge.

The pollution has accumulated from a number of industries, including shipbuilding and ship breaking, wood treatment and lumber milling, storage of bulk fuels and manufactured gas production, chemical manufacturing and storage, municipal sewer overflows and industrial storm water. The EPA has identified more than 150 potentially responsible parties that will be asked to help pay for the clean-up. Ten of those parties teamed up to form the Lower Willamette Group, and agreed to help with the cleanup process.

Grandinetti said the EPA has done an extensive investigation to outline where the toxic pollution is and which fish and wildlife it’s affecting.

“We’ve evaluated risk to those critters that live in the sediment all the way up to the bald eagle that ate the critter that lived in the sediment,” she said. “We’ve also evaluated risk to people. All of that information exists now.”

The agency has also analyzed seven options for cleaning up the site.

They range from no action to an extensive, $1 billion clean-up that involves disposing of hundreds of acres of contaminated soil. The plans include various combinations of clean-up activities, including “monitored natural recovery” that allows the river to bring in cleaner sediment over time, “capping” contaminated areas with clean material that will hold toxins in place and separate them from the rest of the river, on-site treatment, and dredging to remove contaminated soil so it can be shipped or trucked to contained storage facilities.

The proposed clean-up plan will be released along with a final version of its draft feasibility study and additional cleanup alternatives. The EPA will then take public comments for 60 days. The agency plans to make a final decision by the end of the year.

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