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EPA Proposes $746M Portland Harbor Superfund Cleanup


A view from the cleaned up McCormick and Baxter site, on the east side of the Willamette River.

A view from the cleaned up McCormick and Baxter site, on the east side of the Willamette River.

Allison Frost/OPB

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it will take 30 years and around $746 million to clean up a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River known as the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.

The area from the Broadway Bridge to the Columbia Slough is highly contaminated from more than a century of industrial use. After 16 years of study, the EPA finally has a plan for how to clean it all up.

It starts with seven years of “construction” that includes dredging and covering more than 200 acres of the most contaminated soil at the bottom of the river. Some of the 1.8 million cubic yards of polluted sediment removed from the river would be stored in a confined disposal facility to be built in the river. The plan would also remove soil and cap highly contaminated areas along the banks of the river.

Around 1,900 acres of the site with lower contamination levels would be left to recover naturally. In 30 years, the agency says, the entire site will meet the federal clean-up goals.

“It’s not the most aggressive action, and it’s not the least aggressive action,” said EPA Superfund Program Manager Cami Grandinetti. “We really believe we’re hitting a good sweet spot of the right balance of aggressive capping and dredging and the right amount we’re leaving for the river to recover itself.”

The proposed plan is cheaper than some of the more extensive cleanup options the agency was considering. Those went up to $9 billion in cost and would take up to 62 years to complete. Leaving more acreage to recover naturally and designing an in-water disposal facility are two ways the EPA plan reduces the cost of the cleanup.

But Grandinetti said the proposed clean-up will still dramatically reduce the risk to people, fish and wildlife from dozens of pollutants. The dredging, which removes soil from the river bottom, and capping, which covers contamination with clean material, will focus on areas that pose the highest health and ecological risks. Less contaminated areas will be monitored and allowed to recover naturally.

At the end of the seven-year construction period, the EPA says the health risks from contamination at the site will be greatly reduced, dropping by as much as 100 times below the current level in many places.

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 EPA has found 65 contaminants of concern in the area, including heavy metals, pesticides such as DDT, herbicides, dioxins and furans, 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 is safe to eat. Because of the health risks from contamination, mothers and children are currently advised to avoid eating resident fish from the Willamette between Sauvie Island and the Fremont Bridge.

Grandinetti said the main goal of the cleanup is to reduce contaminants in fish and allow safe human consumption. Under the proposed cleanup plan, the EPA says, fish advisories restricting the amount of fish people can safely eat will be “relaxed” for everyone except women of childbearing age and nursing infants.

Travis Williams, director of Willamette Riverkeeper, said he’s disappointed the plan won’t get the river clean enough to lift all fish advisories. The most aggressive clean-up option the EPA was considering would have removed 33 million cubic yards of contaminated soil compared with the proposed 1.8 million.

“It’s just incredibly paltry,” Williams said. “They’re not doing much dredging. They’re still relying on natural recovery far too much. A tremendous amount of contaminated material is still going to be sitting in the river 20 years from now.”

Williams called natural recovery the “do nothing” option. He and others have asked the EPA to give the public more time to comment on the plan, which was 16 years in the making.

EPA Northwest Administrator Dennis McLerran said his agency was careful to balance the costs of the cleanup with the health risks of leaving pollution in the river. Removing more contamination through dredging would have added millions of dollars to the cost of the cleanup while also extending the timeline by many years, he said.

“From our perspective, this reduces risk to achievable levels that we feel in the long term will be protective for folks,” McLerran said. “But we do want to get input from the public and those that are going to be responsible for the cleanup as to whether we got the balance right on this.”

McLerran said his agency will consider requests to extend the comment period.

The pollution at Portland Harbor has accumulated from a wide variety 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.

Barbara Smith, a spokeswoman for the Lower Willamette Group, said her group appreciates efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get to a final cleanup plan.

“This complex river system can be cleaned up efficiently and within a reasonable time by focusing on areas where contaminant levels present the greatest potential risk to humans, fish and wildlife,” Smith said. “Our hope is that the Proposed Plan and subsequent Record of Decision will lead to implementation of a health protective, timely, and cost-efficient cleanup of the Portland Harbor.”

The EPA will be accepting comments on the plan through Aug. 8, and will host several public meetings on the following dates:

  • June 24, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m., City of Portland Building, 1120 SW 5th Ave.
  • June 29, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m., EXPO Center, 2060 N Marine Dr.
  • July 11, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m., University Place Conference Center, 310 SW Lincoln St.
  • July 20, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Ambridge Center, 1333 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd

EPA will offer two presentations on the proposed plan during each meeting at noon and 6 p.m.

The agency will consider and respond to public comments before releasing its final cleanup plan by the end of the year.

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