Willamette Superfund cleanup plan is finished, now it's time to get to work (Opinion)
byTravis Williams and Bob Sallinger, published on Oregonlive.com 1/8/2017
Travis Williams and Bob Sallinger
On Friday, 16 years after Portland Harbor was first listed as a federal Superfund site, the Environmental Protection Agency released its "record of decision." In essence, it's the cleanup plan for a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River that extends from the Fremont Bridge almost to the Columbia River. Over many decades, this portion of river was polluted by toxic chemicals, which remain today on the river bottom as well much of the riverbank. Liability for this pollution is shared by more than 150 responsible parties including industrial entities that caused the original pollution as well as those who purchased polluted properties. In addition to private companies, the City of Portland and the Port of Portland also have a share of the responsibly for addressing the pollution.
The purpose of the Superfund law is to reduce exposure for both people and wildlife to toxic chemicals at highly contaminated sites. The polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), dioxin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals and other contaminants resting at the bottom of and along the Willamette pose a real and ongoing threat to both people and wildlife that use the river and it was this threat that necessitated the EPA's action.
The final plan put forward on Jan. 5 represents a significant victory for grassroots activism in Portland. A coalition that included conservation groups, environmental justice groups, community groups and tribes strongly urged the EPA to strengthen a draft plan put forward last summer. In fact, Portland set an all-time record for the number of comments submitted on a Superfund cleanup plan with more than 5,300 comments submitted.
While the final plan is still not as strong as we would have liked, EPA has nearly doubled the amount of contaminated sediment that will be removed from the river bottom, and offers a more robust effort to cap or cover up contaminants in a more aggressive fashion. A significant monitoring effort will be put in place as well to ensure that the actions taken to remove pollution from this site are having the desired effect. The State of Oregon is an important partner in that effort with the EPA.
This cleanup will have a positive economic impact for the community by eliminating economic uncertainty about the status of properties along the river and putting contaminated land back into productive use. There will be a significant number of jobs generated by the cleanup process and it will be important to ensure that those jobs go to local and particularly underserved communities.
The ongoing risks to people and wildlife are real and even under the best case scenario, it will take many years to clean-up the river. EPA must develop more aggressive strategies than are currently in place to inform at-risk populations about the dangers and to minimize exposure while the cleanup process proceeds. EPA also must do a far better job than it has done in engaging the community in the cleanup process.
Over the coming months those responsible for the cleanup will hash out specific responsibilities and actions, all part of the process outlined in the law. It is critical that these entities get the job done as quickly as possible so that the efforts to curb exposure to toxics in the river can begin. The Willamette is a public resource and as such, it should be safe for everyone. Now, we should use the hard work of the EPA, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, community groups and those responsible for the cleanup over the past 16 years, and take action to implement this plan.
Travis Williams has been riverkeeper and executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper since 2000, and has been engaged in the cleanup process since its inception in 2000. Bob Sallinger is conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland and has worked on Willamette issues for 25 years.