Indigenous tribes and environmentalists are calling on the Biden administration to live up to its commitment to environmental justice by cleaning up a contaminated Columbia River island adjacent to Bonneville Dam.
Bradford Island, located near Cascade Locks, has been used by the Army Corps of Engineers since the construction of the Bonneville Dam in the 1930s. That marked the beginning of what would be a decades-long history of using the area as a dumping ground from 1942 until 1982. The Corps dumped electrical components and other debris that contained highly toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs. That led to pollution of the river and the contamination of fish in the area.
Several environmental, health and conservation groups, along with the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Washington State Department of Ecology, recently submitted a letter requesting once again for the Environmental Protection Agency to designate Bradford Island as a toxic Superfund cleanup site.
The area is important to many tribes in the region, including the Yakama Nation. The Yakama people inhabited the area and harvested salmon and other fish there since time immemorial. The tribe has several tribal fishing platforms on the river, many of which go unused because of health advisories against eating fish, issued by Oregon and Washington.
It’s just the kind of instance of environmental degradation, which disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous and people of color, that the Biden administration promised to address as part of its commitment to addressing environmental injustices.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order during his first month in office that included a long list of climate and environmental policy priorities. One of them was to create a new task force aimed at tackling environmental injustices that have been neglected for years — especially in communities of color, which are hit harder by these inequities through structural racism like redlining. The executive order also lays out a goal that with certain federal investments, including cleaning up legacy pollution, 40% of the benefits flow to disadvantaged communities. And this promise gives hope for the Yakama Nation.
“The facts are very clear, it’s one of the most contaminated sites in the Columbia River Basin and if that’s not enough to convince decision-makers that this should be listed, then I don’t know what else it would take,” Yakama Nation Fisheries government relations liaison Davis Washines said.
Toxic contaminants in the river degrade natural resources the Yakama people depend on, including traditional foods like salmon, which Washines said were put there by their creator.
“So, in spite of the dangers, not to utilize the salmon from the river is a danger to our way of life,” he said.
In October 2019, the same groups first urged the EPA to list Bradford Island as a Superfund site, after samples taken from sediment and tissue from fish found there showed high levels of contaminants at the site. But that request hit a dead end in the summer of 2020, when the Trump administration elected against designating Bradford Island for Superfund cleanup status.
“So now that we are under the Biden administration and this commitment to environmental justice and ‘a new day has dawn’ for how the federal government is going to consider the impacts of its decisions on tribal nations, how is the Biden administration EPA responding?” Columbia Riverkeeper Legal and Program Director Lauren Goldberg said.
Adding Bradford Island to the list of Superfund sites would impose federal government’s most elevated legal standards for what clean means, implement strict timelines and create a sense of urgency, Goldberg said.
The letter writers say without such a designation, cleanup efforts from the Army Corps of Engineers will fall short of what’s necessary to guard against more harmful health impacts to marine life, people who fish along the river, and communities of color.
Yakama Nation Fisheries Superfund Section Manager Rose Longoria said there have been many conversations between federal, state and tribal governments about the high levels of contamination, like PCBs, in the area that remained even after the Corp performed a cleanup in 2007. She said sampling from fish and sediment in 2011 showed that those levels were higher than previous years’ samples.
“The level of contamination is just so astronomically high that there’s this discussion or debate of whether or not the contamination was actually in the fish or on the fish,” Longoria said.
Once present in the environment, PCBs do not break down easily and can build up in the bodies of resident fish. PCBs have been known to have harmful effects to human health and one of the most common ways the toxic chemical enters a human body is through the consumption of fish.
“I think what makes it hard for people to be alarmed is that when you are out on the site it’s beautiful. You know it is just a beautiful location on the river,” Longoria said. “It’s very quiet, it looks healthy, it looks appropriate but what people don’t see, or don’t have information about is that just under the water and on the surface of the Bradford Island itself there’s just a mixture of contaminants.”
For the past two decades, the Corps and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality have been working together under a Voluntary Cleanup Program agreement, in which the Corps paid DEQ’s oversight cost for their participation. But that agreement was terminated by the Corps in September 2019.
DEQ Northwest Region Cleanup program manager Paul Seidel said his agency’s ability to push the cleanup forward is limited — it has no authority over federal agencies like the Corps. But despite the slow progress on decontaminating it, Bradford Island should be a cleanup priority.
“If you compare this site which is a significantly contaminated site, this is a big deal compared to Portland Harbor, which is a very large and complex site,” Seidel said.
Corps spokesperson John Morgan said the agency has been using EPA guidelines to clean up the area and will continue remediation efforts if EPA moves forward in listing Bradford Island as a Superfund site.
Currently, the EPA is considering whether to propose Bradford Island site for Superfund status. If that happens, the decision would go through a rulemaking process which would include an opportunity for public comment. It could be listed as early as 2022.