Willamette Superfund cleanup must happen soon and thoroughly: Guest opinion
Published in The Oregonian:
By Travis Williams, of Willamette Riverkeeper, Bob Sallinger, of the Audubon Society of Portland, Jim Robison, of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, and Cassie Cohen, of Groundwork Portland.
Over 10 miles of the Willamette River, from near downtown Portland to Sauvie Island (known as Portland Harbor), is heavily polluted with industrial contaminants. These contaminants, such as PCBs, heavy metals and the remnants of DDT, can significantly impair the health of humans who use the river, the fish living in the river and wildlife along the river.
It took less than 200 years of unfettered use of the river as a dumping ground to destroy its value as a source of healthy food for the community. This blighted part of our public river was listed as a federal Superfund site back in December of 2000 — a designation reserved for the most polluted sites in the United States. Those who profited by dumping their waste materials in the river should be held responsible.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has led the cleanup process while the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has managed the cleanup of contaminated riverside lands. They work with parties that are liable for cleaning up river; they are known as "potentially responsible parties" (PRPs). There are more than 100 identified potentially responsible parties associated with the Willamette Superfund site.
The Willamette River Superfund is a large and complex site even by federal standards, with as much as $1.8 billion estimated in cleanup costs. Since 2000, data has been gathered to understand the extent of the pollution, modeling has been done to determine how the mix of pollutants interact and how they impact human and ecological health, and some cleanup options have been formulated.
It is ironic that some PRPs will blame the EPA for delays, when they have themselves delayed responsibilities or delivered insufficient work at several stages of this process. EPA has been faced with political pressure from those who would rather have the river remain in its current state for decades as well as those who want a quick, substandard fix to declare the river clean.
Numerous conservation, environmental justice and community groups have been working to ensure the cleanup meets the needs of our community and future generations. We have joined together as the Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC). We all want the river cleaned up quickly — but we also want it done right, with robust community and environmental benefits. In our view, the best way to provide long-term protection for people and wildlife is to remove as much contaminated sediment from the river as possible. This needs to be done with a focus on the protection of the most affected communities — adjoining residents, low-income families, children, houseless individuals, immigrants, refugees and other river users.
The cleanup should ensure that the fish in our river will be safe to catch and eat and should include job training that leads to local, family-wage jobs. The cleanup should restore fish and wildlife habitat in a way that will improve overall wildlife health and provide our community a stronger connection to the river. The Willamette belongs to all of us. Let's move ahead with a successful river cleanup and not leave a legacy of pollution for future generations.