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How did Portland get labeled the third most toxic city in the nation?

Earlier this year, Portland was named America’s greenest city and just this week, the League of American Bicyclists gave the city its top honor for bike friendly communities. Portland also has the dubious distinction — with one contaminated site for every 34 residents — of being ranked the third most toxic city in the United States.

This campaign season, you may have heard this last factoid thrown around by media sources and candidates alike and wondered how we could be so green and so toxic at the same time. The original ranking came from a Business Week article, published on the magazine’s web site in October, 2007. They used data from Environmental Data Resources, a private company that assesses environmental risks for real estate companies and other corporations. Environmental Data Resources describes itself as “the leading provider of U.S. environmental risk information,” but Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality begs to differ. They say the research the company provided to Business Week is faulty, and the reason Portland gets such a bad rap is because Oregon is more diligent than other states about reporting environmental cleanup data.

So how toxic is Portland — and Oregon as a whole? Is the “third most toxic” ranking a useful piece of information to throw around without some context? If Portland is, in fact, so toxic, what is being done to clean up the contamination?



Posted by Emily Harris, 10 PM, Sunday, May 5

I went to check out a couple toxic sites in Portland this afternoon. Jim Robison, chair of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group was my guide.

On the shore of the Willamette, just below the pretty University of Portland neighborhood up on the bluff, we walked around a fenced field that was once home to the McCormick and Baxter creosote company. The seeping pollution caused by years of dunking railroad ties and phone poles into open pools of creosote has now been largely contained. The land just outside the chain-link-topped-with-barbed-wire was once poisoned, but is now appealing enough to attract sunbathers, despite the large notice that it’s right next to a Superfund site!

Just across the river, Jim pointed out what he thinks is the worst among the many industrial sites that put the whole Portland harbor on the Superfund list. It’s owned by the chemical company Arkema, whose predecessor company used to produce DDT and other contaminants there.

Robison says the river is more polluted by these sites than the city in general, although he used to be able to smell the wafting creosote from his house up on the bluff and is delighted to see this site at least contained, if not cleansed.

Photo credits: eek the cat / Flickr / Creative Commons and Emily Harris, OPB

willamette river portland superfund toxic waste

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