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EPA Calls For $1 Billion Portland Harbor Superfund Cleanup

<p>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.</p>

Bonnie Stewart, OPB


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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is raising the price of cleaning up the Portland Harbor Superfund Site from $746 million to $1.05 billion in a final plan that calls for more dredging and capping of contaminated soil along a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River.

In a statement released shortly after the plan was announced Friday, the Port of Portland – one of dozens of parties responsible for cleaning up the site – criticized the EPA for low-balling its cost estimates. The Port's deputy executive director Curtis Robinhold said the actual clean-up cost could be "staggering" at more than $2 billion.

The final plan adds about 100 acres of dredging and capping to the proposed plan released last year. It includes dredging about 3 million cubic yards of contaminated soil from the river and capping a large swath of the riverbank by covering it with clean material. The dredging and capping are part of a construction phase of the cleanup that is expected to take 13 years — as opposed to seven years under the proposed plan.

The new plan allows about 1,700 acres of the site with lower contamination levels to recover naturally, without any cleanup action. It also eliminates a proposal to create a disposal facility for contaminated soil in the Willamette River, but it leaves the door open for the development of a disposal facility close to Portland that would be accessible by barge.

EPA Northwest Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said his agency opted for a more extensive cleanup in response to thousands of public comments on a proposed cleanup plan released last year.

“We received over 5,000 public comments,” he said. “About 90 percent of those demanded a stronger remedy from the EPA. So we took those comments, and we have a more protective remedy."

The new plan will result in a faster cleanup that will make it safe for people to eat more resident fish in the river sooner, McLerran said.

“By doing more active work, more dredging, more capping in the river rather than relying on natural recovery it does mean you’re going to get to recovery quicker,” he said.

Travis Williams, executive director of the environmental group Willamette Riverkeeper, said he's pleased with the additional dredging and capping in the final plan.

"They’re calling for over a million more cubic yards to be dredged out of the river," he said. "That’s adding a significant amount of material. This gets us much further than were we were and reflects really where we should have started with the draft plan."

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and city Commissioner Nick Fish released a joint statement supporting the plan and the fact that the cleanup work would be done by local workers.

Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, said her group was hoping for "a more cost-effective cleanup."

"At first glance this plan does not appear to achieve the balance between ensuring a healthy environment and a healthy economy that we had hoped for and may result in dragging out the cleanup process we all want to begin," she said in a statement.

While Robinhold expressed concerns about the EPA's plan, he also noted "a few hopeful signs" including the agency's willingness to divide up the 10-mile site into smaller clean-up areas and allowing flexibility for the potentially responsible parties.

The area designated as the Portland Harbor Superfund site runs from the Broadway Bridge to the Columbia Slough – along roughly 10 miles of the Willamette that's highly contaminated from more than a century of industrial use. The EPA has spent 16 years studying the pollution at the site and developing a cleanup plan.

The biggest risk to people, according to the EPA, is from eating resident fish such as bass, catfish and carp that accumulate the toxins when they eat insects that live in the contaminated sediment. The EPA expects the initial phase of the cleanup to reduce cancer risks from contamination at the site to 100 times below the current level.

Richard Whitman, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality interim director, said the state of Oregon has approved the EPA’s final plan.

“We felt it was time to move this forward because of the very real, ongoing risks to public health from consuming resident fish in particular,” Whitman said.

The state has fish advisories and guidelines on how much is safe to eat. Because of the health risks from contamination, mothers and children are currently advised to avoid eating resident fish from the Willamette between Sauvie Island and the Fremont Bridge.

Whitman said Gov. Kate Brown has proposed spending $10 million in her recommended budget to “jump start the clean-up effort” with early work in the harbor. She has hired a coordinator to help setup a long-term monitoring system that will test for pollution above, below and within the Superfund site so the state can keep tabs on cleanup progress over time.

As part of the EPA's cleanup plan, the state has agreed to help launch a new program that will aim to reduce contaminants in the Willamette River overall — including areas outside the Superfund site.

Jim Woolford, director of EPA’s Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, said the EPA pushed to complete the final cleanup plan before the end of the Obama Administration to make sure the plan wouldn’t be delayed by a transition to a new administration. He said he expects to see the EPA implement the plan under the Trump Administration.

“I can’t guess exactly what the administration will do, but I’m pretty confident we’ll have momentum to keep the work at the site going forward,” he said.

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Cassandra Profita