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Officials 'Cautiously Optimistic' About Portland Harbor Cleanup After EPA Meeting


The Portland Harbor Superfund Site is a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River that is highly contaminated from more than a century of industrial pollution.

The Portland Harbor Superfund Site is a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River that is highly contaminated from more than a century of industrial pollution.

Bonnie Stewart/OPB/EarthFix

A high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency official visited Portland to meet with state and local groups and officials Wednesday.

Superfund Task Force Chair Albert “Kell” Kelly met with many people interested in understanding what it means to have the Portland Harbor Superfund identified as one of 21 sites the EPA says it’s targeting for immediate attention.

Meanwhile, stakeholders are anticipating the release of a long-awaited plan for how to execute baseline sampling of pollutants at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in the Willamette River — a plan that will determine how cleanup at the site is allocated amongst responsible parties.

Officials, community members and Portland environmental groups expressed cautious optimism after the meetings. They say they quelled concerns about transparency in the cleanup process, but ultimately didn’t lead to conclusive action plans.

“The main question of the day I think was: How is this going to be different from business as usual?” said Sarah Greenfield, the in-water project coordinator for Portland Harbor with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

“DEQ did emphasize the need to establish some goals,” Greenfield said. “With any kind of project, it’s really easy for time to just slip by, and before you know it you look back and you say, ‘What did we accomplish?’”

Kelly and the EPA’s new Region 10 administrator, Chris Hladick, met with representatives from the city of Portland, Gov. Kate Brown’s office, the Port of Portland and five Portland environmental groups. 

Kelly and Hladick also attended a monthly DEQ Technical Coordination team meeting, which regularly includes tribal representatives from the Yakama, Umatilla, Siletz, Grand Ronde, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes.

Groups and officials who met with Kelly and Hladick say both leaders emphasized their desire to ensure speedy, uninterrupted cleanup occurs at the site, which would include directing resources to the region for cleanup if needed. That was a concern from some who were curious to see how the EPA would reconcile proposed budget cuts with an efficient clean up.

“I get the sense that, at least rhetorically in discussions, they want this to be a success,” said Travis Williams, executive director of the Willamette River Keeper. “They don’t want to be seen as the entity — even in a new political framework we’re in — that slows this down.”

Annie Von Burg, the senior program manager with Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, said city leaders were pleased to hear the EPA’s desire to start cleanup and offer resources as needed.

Albert Kelly assured us that revisiting the Record of Decision is not his intention, and that he wants to see this site returned to a healthy working harbor as soon as possible,” Von Burg said.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who’s in charge of the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, expressed in the meeting a need for a transparent process that includes engagement with community groups, according to Von Burg.

Ahead of their meeting with Kelly, community groups say they were granted a short, last-minute meeting after requesting time with him.

One representative from five groups — which include the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, Willamette River Keeper, Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, the Audubon Society of Portland and the Willamette River Advocacy Group — were told they would be granted 15 minutes total with Kelly. Representatives said they ended up spending somewhere between 25-30 minutes with him.

“I think we were a little bit disappointed in a short meeting with Kelly,” said Ranfis Villatoro, a volunteer with the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, which represents communities of color. “Him and his staff reiterated that they want to provide better community engagement and be more transparent, and encourage us to provide what engagement looks like to us.”

In October, the EPA reached a draft agreement on baseline pollutant sampling at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site with those responsible for doing the cleaning.

The agreement was criticized by many, including Gov. Kate Brown’s office, as an agreement reached without input from key stakeholders, including tribal leaders. 

“We raised concerns that there was some closed-door negotiations happening with private potentially responsible parties [PRPs] with the EPA,” said Bryan Hockaday, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. “We don’t want to see what we saw in October.”

Villatoro, who was in the meeting with representatives of community groups, said Kelly “seemed pretty confident” that a new agreement for baseline sampling will be ready as soon as this Friday. 

“That remains to be seen that that will happen that quickly,” Villatoro said. 

Greenfield with the DEQ said Kelly addressed concerns from tribal representatives who’ve already worked with the EPA on a baseline sampling plan.

“They’d worked really hard with the EPA all year to put together this baseline plan that the EPA posted onto their website, and currently the priority plan that’s being proposed doesn’t include all the elements that all the tribal governments thought were important,” Greenfield said. “So they’re looking to see how EPA might pick up those additional pieces perhaps through engaging other parties down the road.”

Groups say they’ll watch to see how Kelly’s commitment to expedited cleanup will play out amid a pattern of proposed budget cuts at the agency. 

“How is their enforcement abilities for enforcing the Portland Harbor Cleanup going to be impacted by their budget cuts?” said Cassie Cohen, coordinator of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition. “That’s one of the main questions.”

Hockaday, Brown’s spokesperson, said it’s important not to conflate national concerns with the situation at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.

“There are two types of Superfund sites: one where responsible parties are identified and sites that are abandoned and there are no responsible parties,” Hockaday said. “In Portland, we have those potentially responsible parties. The major players who can take action are here, because we have the PRPs.”

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