Seven companies have filed a legal dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the plans to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site.
The companies, including Chevron, Gunderson, NW Natural, Union Pacific Railroad, Evraz Inc., Arkema and TOC Holdings Co., are all members of the Lower Willamette Group. The group has agreed to accept responsibility for some of the pollution in the highly contaminated 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River and work with the EPA on the cleanup.
Their agreement gives these companies the right to dispute the agency’s plans. The EPA is required to resolve the dispute in its final decision on the cleanup. Other members of the Lower Willamette Group, including the Port of Portland and the city of Portland, have decided not to exercise that right.
The EPA released a $746 million cleanup plan for the site earlier this month. The 30-year plan proposes dredging and covering more than 200 acres of contaminated soil at the bottom of the river while leaving around 1,900 acres untouched to recover naturally.
On Wednesday, the companies sent a 22-page letter to the EPA disputing a long list of problems with the "feasibility study" underpinning that plan. The letter criticizes the EPA for rushing through the cleanup planning process and challenges the agency's evaluation of how much the cleanup will cost, how long it should take, and how effective it will be at reducing health risks from toxic contamination.
They argue the study “is not grounded in facts and not based on accepted scientific principles.”
The agency’s faulty evaluations, they say, result in the EPA calling for cleanup work in areas where it’s not needed or won’t be effective in reducing toxic risks.
Barbara Smith, a spokeswoman for the Lower Willamette Group, said the companies want to be sure they will be able to complete an effective cleanup and that the money they spend will result in reduced risks.
"It’s going to be important for the parties who do have liability at the site to be willing to step up and perform the work knowing that the underlying science and rules and regulations are ones they can count on," she said. "What we’re hoping is the EPA can resolve some of these underlying issues that have been brought forward in this dispute document so there will be parties that can have confidence going forward that a cleanup is something that can be done once and done well."
She said the EPA's cost estimates for the cleanup "don't look very realistic." In their letter, the companies tell the EPA its evaluations "continue to omit significant cost elements" such as the cost of the pollution testing required before cleanup work begins and engineering design work.
They say the EPA's projected schedule doesn't leave time for designing the cleanup plans or making changes.
And they suggest the agency "has rushed through the process" in releasing the feasibility study at the same time as the proposed cleanup plan.
Smith said on other Superfund sites, the EPA released the feasibility study months or even years ahead of the proposed cleanup plan.
The Lower Willamette Group was in charge of developing the feasibility study, but last year the EPA took over the process. In their letter, the companies say many of their disputes stem from changes the agency made to their earlier work.
The letter says the companies don't expect the disputes to delay the EPA's final decision on the cleanup, and that their objections "are not intended to indicate any unwillingness to clean up sediments that pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment."
EPA Superfund Manager Cami Grandinetti said the disputes add to the EPA's workload, so they could very well add to the time it takes to complete the record of decision. The agency is currently taking public comments on the proposed plan, and will also respond to comments in its record of decision.
The EPA is holding its first public meeting to accept comments Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the City of Portland Building, 1120 SW 5th Ave., in Portland.