Dennis McLerran: Lower Willamette will be clean once again

Published at http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/09/lower_willamette_wil...
Sept. 25, 2015

By Dennis McLerran

After more than 150 years of heavy industrial activity, expansive growth and world-changing innovations, the Portland area is on the verge of a transformational effort to restore the very river that drove so much of the region's economic success and cultural history.

Indeed, if it could be grown, processed, manufactured or repaired, it was going to happen along the Willamette. And that same "get it done" attitude was resurrected in the '60s and '70s when former Gov. Tom McCall drove the fight to clean up the Willamette, which had caused public health authorities to ban people from its waters.

The governor rallied public opinion and the state Legislature to create the Department of Environmental Quality – and to give it teeth. Over time, the pollution insults slowed, and by the 1980s, water quality improvement in the Willamette was heralded as one of the great success stories of the nascent environmental movement.

Despite these efforts, decades of heavy industrial use and the millions of people living in the watershed continued to pollute the river. Today, the bottom and banks of the Lower Willamette within Portland Harbor remain contaminated with heavy metals, PCBs, hydrocarbons, dioxins and pesticides.

In some areas of Portland Harbor resident fish and shellfish aren't safe to eat, and direct contact with sediment can pose a risk to people. Despite health agency warnings, people continue to eat fish and shellfish from the river, putting themselves and their families at risk.

Clearly, the most concentrated, persistent and toxic pollutants must be cleaned up to levels that reduce the risk to people -- and the EPA and the DEQ are working with responsible parties to do exactly that.

Contaminated sediment cleanups like Portland's Lower Willamette -- which encompasses the most contaminated parts of the river from the Columbia Slough to just below the Broadway Bridge -- are big and complicated, and require agencies, citizens and industries to work together to address the problems. That process is often complex, time-consuming and sometimes a little contentious.

The EPA's goal is to develop a plan that will mirror Portlanders' vision for a cleaner, healthier working waterfront – one that will target the most dangerous sources of pollution, that will be technically feasible, and that will be affordable.

Our plan will prescribe removing the worst pollution from the river bottom and upland sources, capping other areas and relying on enhanced natural processes to clean up the majority of the remaining river bottom.

Over the fall and winter, we will continue working with the Community Advisory Group, our natural resource trustees, state, tribes, the Lower Willamette Group and our national experts to produce a draft plan for public view and comment in the spring. By that time we will also have a better sense of that plan's costs and timeframe.

We're committed to providing many opportunities for the public to be involved in the cleanup once the proposed plan hits the streets and urge all Portlanders to find a way to participate. We hope they see the time spent as a good investment in helping guide and shape the long-term cleanup of the majestic Willamette River.

Over the past several decades, the people of the city of Portland and the state of Oregon have invested a great deal in the Willamette, recognizing its historic value as the region's economic and cultural engine. We see the work ahead as not only safeguarding these past investments, but instrumental in delivering a cleaner, healthier river for everyone who lives, works and plays on the Willamette. We owe that to future generations of Portlanders.

Dennis McLerran is the Region 10 administrator for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.