The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the Columbia River’s Bradford Island a Superfund site — one of the nation’s top priorities for cleanup — on March 17, 2022. A year later, environmental agencies, advocates and Indigenous tribes say they are frustrated with the lack of urgency from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin that process, and they are calling on the EPA to step in.
In the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began dumping waste on Bradford Island, located near Cascade Locks, as the agency built the Bonneville Dam. For four decades, the Corps continued to dump debris and electrical equipment that contained highly toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, directly into the river, contaminating the island and surrounding waters.
PCBs do not break down easily and can build up in the tissues of fish. They have been known to have harmful effects on human health. Both Oregon and Washington have issued health advisories warning people to not eat resident fish near Bradford Island due to high levels of PCBs.
According to the EPA, concentration levels of PCBs and mercury in resident fish within 1 river mile of Bradford Island have been among the highest reported in the nation.
During the 2000s, the Corps removed 32 tons of solid waste, including electrical equipment, from the north shore of the island. In 2007, the agency dredged up water and sediment and then filtered it to remove contamination, but that was the last time the Corps performed any cleanup at the site.
That led environmental and health groups, along with tribes, lawmakers and state agencies, to work together for more than three years toward getting a Superfund designation for the area. The designation requires the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee and ensure the highest levels of cleanup standards are applied. It also creates a timeline, known as a Federal Facilities Agreement, for when the Corps needs to get various parts of the cleanup finished.
That timeline is still under negotiation, but many who want to see Bradford Island restored are frustrated with the drawn-out process. Some are calling on the EPA to hold the Corps accountable now and take over cleanup responsibilities.
Rose Longoria, who specializes in fisheries Superfund issues for Yakama Nation, has been working on getting the area cleaned up for almost 20 years.
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 fishing platforms on the river, many of which go unused because of health advisories against eating fish.
Longoria said she’s upset the Corps is not involving the tribe in government decisions and is only allowing them to provide input through public meetings.
“All the Corps is doing is protecting their ability to have ultimate control, be the sole decision maker and do this cleanup however they believe is appropriate without any input from anyone else,” she told OPB. “At this point, I don’t see any daylight in them changing their ways.”
Longoria said the Yakama Nation has explained to the Corps on several occasions their right as a sovereign nation to oversee the area and how it should be cleaned.
“This has been nearly two decades,” she said. “All of this time, energy, effort, resources, should be spent on fixing the issue, not having to fight a federal agency that actually has a fiduciary responsibility to the Yakama Nation. So, I’m extraordinarily frustrated.”
Army Corps physical scientist Dan Carlson said tribes can provide input through the Restoration Advisory Board, a forum that was recently created after the Corps conducted several interviews with community members on their concerns about cleanup. He said tribes can also provide input in “nation to nation” meetings where Indigenous groups meet with the Army Corps’ senior leadership, including the agency’s tribal liaison.
But overall, Carlson said it’s the Corps’ responsibility to clean up the site.
“The Corps has the willingness and [is] very much looking forward to the cleanup,” he said.
Army Corps spokesperson John Morgan said the agency understands the frustration as their team is collecting data and finalizing a timeline.
“We all want the same thing,” he said. “It’s not the lack of urgency. I think it’s diligence and making sure that we’re doing what’s right … . I think that takes time, especially, you know, this is a unique site, and its terrain is unique.”
Morgan said it’s important that the agency understands which parts of Bradford Island are contaminated so the agency doesn’t cause more damage by digging up clean areas.
But the delay of coming to an agreement has left Oregon’s new Department of Environmental Quality director, Leah Feldon, disappointed.
“While we continue to support and participate in negotiations over the long-delayed cleanup of Bradford Island, DEQ is disappointed that it appears unlikely that we will have a signed Federal Facilities Agreement by April as we had originally planned,” she said.
Feldon also said the agency remains committed to ensuring that tribes, including the Yakama Nation, have a seat at the table because their input is essential for the future of the area.
Columbia Riverkeeper’s executive director Lauren Goldberg said the EPA needs to step in and use its full authority to hold the Corps accountable for delays and include the tribes in government decisions.
“This should have been done decades ago,” she said. “This pollution was discovered in the ‘90s and at public meetings it’s clear that there is a great deal of frustration — and also a great deal of enthusiasm to hold the government accountable.”
The EPA did not answer questions on whether it would intervene in the process, but in a written statement, the agency said it will continue to work with the Army Corps on an agreement, noting that it’s “critical” the agreement honors federal treaty responsibilities.
There is no timeline for when the Corps will come to an agreement with other federal and state entities involved to begin the cleanup process. The Restoration Advisory Board’s first meeting is set to be held on March 20, where the public can attend and provide comments on the process so far.