How much do you know about the Portland Harbor Superfund site? When I was asked to give a presentation on the topic, I pretty much had to start from square one with the whole process because I haven’t been following it very closely over the years. I’ve laid out the basics here with links to more information. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve left out and whether you think the notoriously contaminated site will ever be clean.
More than 100 years of industry on the Willamette River left toxic contaminants in the soil and river sediment downstream from downtown Portland. Extensive testing has found 29 different toxic compounds at levels that pose a risk to human health and 89 compounds that pose a risk to ecological health.
Even though most of the pollution is leftover from long ago, it is still seeping into groundwater and the Willamette River. It’s still pouring into the river from storm water outfall pipes. And until it is cleaned up, it is free to spread from the soil to fish and wildlife, rivers and people. The Environmental Protection Agency added the site to the Superfund priority list in 2000. Here’s a link to the EPA’s site.
Only a handful of cleanup projects in the most contaminated areas have taken place in the 12 years since then. The EPA is planning to finalize a clean-up plan by late 2014, and negotiations over who should pay for how much of the clean-up will begin after that.
The list of more than 150 parties responsible for cleaning up the mess include both past and present landowners, public agencies and private companies. As this story in Portland Business Magazine lays out, the liability for the clean-up has already cost the parties big bucks, left many properties vacant or abandoned and deterred investment in the area.
Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland, which is the largest property owner in the harbor said: “As soon as you just mention that word Superfund, people start to quiver. These are not properties for the meek at heart.”
Where is Portland Harbor?
What’s wrong with the site?
Over the past 100 years, ship builders, ship breakers, wood treatment plants and lumber mills, steelmakers, bulk fuel storage facilities, pound gas production, chemical manufacturing and sewer overflows have left hazardous waste in the area.
Contaminants at those sites can leach in to groundwater that people eventually drink, into the river where it can contaminate fish and wildlife, and it poses a risk to people who come into direct contact with the soil or sediment.
Only some of the industries that caused the pollution are still operating today, and they’re handling their waste a lot differently now.
“Up until fifties, sixties and seventies, people were directly discharging contaminant waste streams into the river,” said Jim Anderson, Portland Harbor project manager for Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “We’re not doing that so much anymore. But, yes, until both the soil and sediment is cleaned up, there is still contamination making it into the river.”
Toxic contaminants found throughout Portland Harbor include:
- the banned industrial compound polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
- the banned pesticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane)
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) that come from combustion – many from fossil fuels
- plasticizing chemicals called phthalates that can mess with the body’s hormones and cause developmental problems.
What is a Superfund site?
A Superfund site is an abandoned hazardous waste site that poses enough risk to human and environmental health that the Environmental Protection Agency has stepped in to lead a clean-up effort. It’s also the name of an actual fund that no longer has any money in it.
The fund was created by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 after the discovery of huge toxic waste dumps like Love Canal. It made people liable for hazardous waste pollution. It also created a trust fund to clean up waste that couldn’t be pinned on a responsible party.
Initially, the law taxed chemical and petroleum industries to fund cleanups of abandoned waste sites. But the tax expired in 1995. According to this summary by U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the tax raised around $2 billion a year while it was around. But the fund was basically at zero by 2003.
However, there are still annual appropriations from Congress that help pay the orphaned portions of Superfund cleanups.
Around 1,300 sites have been added to the Superfund list. Only around 350 have been removed for complete cleanups.
What’s happened since 2000?
Most of what’s happened so far have been lot of studies and reports.
The EPA built a list of Potentially Responsible Parties – PRPs – that could be liable for the pollution at the site. There are now more than 150 PRPS for Portland Harbor. Want to see the full list?
14 of those parties have started paying for the clean-up and 10 of those have agreed to bear the initial cost of planning the overall clean-up. Collectively, those groups are called the Lower Willamette Group, and they can collect money from other responsible parties to cover some of their costs. They’ve already sued 69 other parties for not cooperating with Superfund clean-up process.
The members of the Lower Willamette Group are: Arkema Inc., Bayer CropScience, Inc., BNSF Railway Company, Chevron U.S.A., Inc., City of Portland, EVRAZ Gunderson LLC, Kinder Morgan Liquids Terminals, NW Natural, Phillips 66 Company, Port of Portland, Siltronic Corporation, TOC Holdings Co., Union Pacific Railroad Company
The group has funded several key reports that still need to be approved by the EPA:
- Risk Assessment studies looking at what human and ecological health risks are associated with the contamination at the site.
- A Remedial Investigation Study outlining what’s on the site and how hazardous it is to human and environmental health.
- A Feasibility Study of various clean-up options.
There’s been a bit of actual cleanup, too. Primarily in the “hotspots” that were the most obviously hazardous and spreading contamination to other sites.
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is overseeing clean-ups in the upland portion of the site while the EPA handles the in-water clean-up and oversees the larger Superfund process. See the DEQ site here.
Follow these links to read about the clean-up actions that have been taken at Arkema, a former pesticide manufacturing site contaminated with DDT and other chemicals, Gasco, a former gas manufacturing plant that was riddled with tar deposits, the Port of Portland’s Terminal 4, which has high levels of pesticides, PCBs, metals and PAHs, Triangle Park, which has soil and groundwater contamination, and U.S. Moorings, which has solvents, metals and petroleum by-products from ship maintenance.
Several sites are already working on controlling and treating storm water runoff before discharging it from polluted sites and treating polluted groundwater.
What on the site, and how hazardous is it?
The Remedial Investigation found 29 contaminants at levels that pose a risk to human health. They found 89 contaminants at levels that pose a risk to ecological health – i.e. birds, mammals, and fish.
There are four chemical groups that are posing the most risk:
- PCBs: Contained in industrial lubricants and insulators, these are probable carcinogens and extremely persistent in the environment.
- Chlorinated dioxins and furans: These are known human carcinogens that are released in combustion and chemical processes.
- DDT and its breakdown products: A pesticide that’s also very persistent and can cause nervous system and reproductive problems.
- PAHs – Known carcinogens that are released through combustion, tar and coal.
The Oregonian has this helpful graphic on which areas in the harbor have high levels of contamination.
It illustrates high levels of PCBs at Oregon Steel, Northwest Pipe and Schnitzer Steel, dioxins and furans around the McCormick & Baxter Creosoting and Portland General Electric sites, PAHs at the Northwest aural Gas and Siltronic Corp. sites, and DDT at the Arkema site.
The remedial investigation also found:
- PCBs are by far the most hazardous and the most widespread.
- Eating contaminated fish is by far the highest risk for humans and wildlife.
- Exposures in sediment or water are much lower.
- The contamination is higher as you go deeper in the soil – indicating legacy pollution.
- PCBs in fish tissue are higher at the site than they are elsewhere in the region.
- PCBs were found to pose a high risk to mink, river otter, osprey, mergansers and spotted sandpiper and to individual bald eagles.
- Resident fish such as smallmouth bass and sculpin contain more toxins than migratory fish such as salmon and steelhead.
- Toxin levels get get higher as you go up the food chain to birds such as osprey or bald eagles – indicating that they’re bioaccumulating.
- Contaminants are entering the river through wastewater and stormwater outfalls, releases and spills, bank erosion and groundwater.
- Some are also coming from other places — upstream or from the air.
Some sites are more hazardous than others. For example, the Oregon Health Authority put out this report on the Gasco site, which is near the Railroad Bridge on the southwest bank of the Willamette.
“People who regularly recreate (i.e., boat, swim, beach comb, etc.) at the former GASCO site beach over several years, may be exposed to polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)s at levels that may increase their risk of developing cancer at some time in their lives. However, it is unlikely that this beach is presently being used recreationally on a regular basis.”
OHA lays out the various risks and fish advisories for Portland Harbor on this site.
What will it take to clean it up?
It’s taken 12 years and $96 million to get this far, and there’s still a lot of work to do. No one expects the clean-up to be over anytime soon.
The feasibility study released earlier this year identified a range of clean-up options with some major cost differences: $169 million - $1.7 billion depending on how you approach the cleanup.
All of the options would dramatically reduce the amount of contamination at Portland Harbor to meet EPA’s clean-up goals.
But the options vary in how clean they would get the site depending on which of these clean-up techniques are used:
- Natural restoration: Letting natural processes cover the contamination with clean sediment.
- Capping: Putting sand and clean soil over the contaminated soil to cover it up and lock it in place.
- Removing contamination and storing it at hazardous waste sites. In river sediment this would involve dredging.
- Treating contamination on site using advanced technologies.
The least expensive option in the feasibility study would dredge 23 acres of the river, cap seven acres and treat 19 acres. The most expensive option would dredge 300 acres and take up to 28 years to complete.
The EPA will release an official clean-up plan outlining which options should be used where. That plan will be put out for public comment.
Meanwhile, as this Oregonian story reported, various stakeholders are debating which options they’d prefer.
James McKenna of the Lower Willamette Group said:
“The good news is we’re going to be able to significantly reduce the risk to acceptable levels under any of these alternatives. It’s do-able, and it’s do-able in a reasonable amount of time.”
But Travis Williams of the environmental group Willamette Riverkeeper questioned the study’s less expensive options:
“It seems like what they’re arguing is pretty self-serving in terms of lowering their costs. If the goal here is really to make this river right, we should be removing as much contamination as possible, even if it takes more time to do it.”
And Jim Robison, who chairs the Community Advisory Group for the Portland Harbor Cleanup, said the more pollution that is left behind, the more risk there is of toxins leaking out.
“We really don’t want to see a legacy of pollutants left there. Whenever you leave something in place, under a cap or in a confined disposal facility, you always have the risk that it will leak.”
How clean does it need to be?
The Lower Willamette Group is in a dispute with the EPA right now over the ultimate standard for a clean site. The standard is based in part on an established fish consumption rate – how much fish the average person eats. That rate determines the risk level and the amount of clean-up that needs to be done to reduce health risks.
Three Portland Harbor industrial companies commissioned a study to gauge the cost and benefits of cleaning up the contamination.
The study paid for by Schnitzer Steel, Gunderson and Vigor Industrial concluded that the EPA’s fish consumption rate was unrealistically high and that there would be minimal health benefits achieved for very high clean-up costs.
The EPA can’t comment on the issue while the dispute is being resolved, but here’s how EPA project manager Kristine Koch explained the extent of clean-up that will be needed:
“The entire river isn’t contaminated. There’s contamination everywhere, but we don’t clean up every molecule of contamination. Otherwise we’d be dreading 11 river miles of the river. We clean up as much as we can and see how the system responds to see if we need to do more. That’s what’s typically done at sediment sites.”
Barbara Smith, a spokeswoman for the Lower Willamette Group, put it this way:
“It’s not going to become the wild and natural part of the river. It’s an industrial area. It’s always going to be an industrial area.”
There’s a lot left to do before the formal clean-up can even begin.
The EPA is reviewing the Lower Willamette Group reports and has to approve each one before drafting its own proposed plan. The public will be invited to comment on that plan.
Then there will be a record of decision – the binding order from the EPA that says how much needs to be cleaned up. The plan is to have that out by late 2014.
The EPA proposal will include a cost estimate, but it’s a very loose estimate. The actual cost could be 50 percent more or 30 percent less.
There will be an allocation process among the potentially responsible parties. The EPA doesn’t lay out direct responsibility, said Koch, only a blanket order for clean-up that can then be parsed out among the parties:
“We just say this is where there is an environmental problem. We’ll identify potential contributors to that, but they need to decide who’s going to do what because when you put stuff in the river it doesn’t just stay there. It moves around. There maybe other people who have contaminated the river that’s commingled with stuff released by Gunderson. Someone else’s stuff can get in there too. More than one party can have liability and they’re both equally responsible for cleaning it up.”
Then the EPA will issue a consent decree assigning responsibility based on what the parties agree on. The EPA can agree to cover some of the so-called “orphan share” that can’t be tied to a responsible party. Some companies may be the participating parties that do the work and others might only pay a share of the clean-up costs without actually doing any clean-up work.
“We have more than 150 responsible parties,” Koch said. “Getting that many people to agree could be very difficult. We’re having trouble getting 10 parties to agree.”
If the parties cannot agree, if there is a stalemate, the EPA can issue a unilateral order. But that doesn’t solve every problem. Some parties may sue the EPA, Conley said. That will add to the time it takes to finish the clean-up.
Smith of Lower Willamette Group, said the groups that have stepped up to participate in the process are expecting to get the clean-up done first and settle disputes in lawsuits later:
“There are a lot of lawsuits with Superfund clean-ups. But the process is designed so lawsuits will come after the cleanup, not before the cleanup. It says, ‘Let’s get the clean-up done first and let all of you settle this in lawsuits later.’”
Some advocates are pushing for the companies at river mile 11 to start their clean-up plans now to help speed up the process for other sites downstream. A lot of clean-up has taken place in advance of the EPA’s clean-up plan at other Superfund sites including the one on Seattle’s Duwamish River.
“Some sites could have been clean by now,” said Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper.
But as the city of Portland’s former Superfund manager told The Oregonian, spending money on clean-up before the Superfund process is complete could be perceived as admitting guilt and could lead to paying more later:
“Spending money can indicate liability and deep pockets – that fear is out there. But there’s no place to hide.”
To get the site off the Superfund list, Koch said, there are two targets that need to be met: One is a short-term goal for reducing hazardous exposures. The other is long term and more protective – what the site should look like in 30 years.
There are also Natural Resources Damage Assessment process led by group of agencies that look at what natural resources have been harmed by the contamination and what restoration projects could repair the damage. It’s headed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribes in this case. And their plan is out for public comment until Oct. 8.