My View: Time for Portland Harbor renaissance

Written by Dennis McLerran and Richard Whitman published in Portland Tribune 1/10/2017.

As early as 1911, the Oregon Board of Health declared that the lower Willamette River was an open sewer — where fish were unsuitable to eat. Since those days, water quality has improved tremendously as the result of substantial public and private investments — to the point where people are once again enjoying the river.

But the work to restore the Willamette to its historic role as the region's economic, social and cultural center is not done. While water quality has improved, over 150 years of industrial and urban uses have left a legacy of high levels of PCBs, pesticides, dioxins/furans, and other contaminants in and along the 10-plus mile stretch from the Steel Bridge in Portland down to Kelly Point Park just above the Columbia. This contamination is taken up by resident fish and wildlife — presenting significant and unacceptable risks to people's health and to the environment.

In 2000, the EPA placed the lower Willamette River on the National Priorities List — also known as the Superfund list. This action triggered a process to determine where the worst contamination is, what risks it poses to people and the environment, and what cleanup approaches would work.

Over the past 16 years — with the state of Oregon, the city of Portland, the Lower Willamette Group, Native American tribes, and community members — the EPA has determined that the greatest health risk from contaminants in Portland Harbor is from eating "resident" fish such as carp and bass that spend their entire lives in the harbor. Of particular concern is the significant risk to babies breast-fed by mothers who depend on these fish as a source of protein.

After the EPA released its proposed plan for review and comment last June, it hosted several public meetings and tribal consultations, and received comments from over 5,000 individuals and organizations. The vast majority of the comments called for an earlier and more aggressive cleanup than outlined in the proposal.

The final decision the EPA released last week reflects the overwhelming sentiment for a forceful program to make the river safe again. The plan requires more dredging and removal of contamination, as well as placing protective, engineered caps in areas less suitable to dredging. In addition to the Superfund cleanup, EPA and Oregon DEQ will together set in motion a program for reducing sources of toxic contamination in the Willamette upstream of the lower river, and encouraging early cleanup actions.

Compared to the proposed plan, the final plan:

• Reduces health risks to people, fish and wildlife sooner by dredging and/or capping 100 additional acres of contaminated sediment;

• Achieves cleanup goals sooner;

• Paves the way for "early-action" cleanups;

• Eliminates unnecessary disposal costs;

• Eliminates the use of a Confined Disposal Facility; and

• Makes it safer for more people to eat more resident fish sooner.

Most importantly, EPA's plan reduces risk more quickly to the most vulnerable people who rely on fish for sustenance; makes it safer for people to enjoy the lower Willamette fully; and protects workers from high concentrations of toxics.

So, what happens now?

Under the Superfund law's "polluter pays" policy, responsible parties will take on the cleanup. The next step is to begin the technical design of the cleanup, which will include new sampling of the dredge/cap areas to determine specific cleanup approaches, as well as a comprehensive, long-term monitoring program to identify when cleanup goals are met.

To assist with these efforts, Gov. Kate Brown has proposed start-up funding to begin putting in place the long-term monitoring needed to evaluate and refine cleanup work. In addition, EPA and Oregon DEQ will work to accelerate the identification of toxic hot spots in the Willamette basin upstream of Portland, and work with stakeholders to reduce toxics in the 11,500-square-mile Willamette River watershed.

As we move forward, the cleanup's final design-level details will become clearer, costs will be further refined, and its ultimate breadth and scope will come into much sharper focus. Throughout this process we will continue to monitor polluted sites, gather data and employ new ways to hasten the work, maximize risk reductions, and limit costs.

There's little doubt that cleanup of the contaminated sediment and upland properties will bring clear and significant benefits to the Portland area. The economic opportunity that awaits the region when the river is transformed back to the crown jewel that it once was cannot be overstated. Even during the cleanup, with careful planning and execution, there will be opportunities for job training and local employment to benefit communities disproportionately affected by the river's poor condition.

For many decades, the people in and around Portland have been clamoring for a cleaner, healthier, more beautiful, and more productive Willamette. In 1962, before he became governor, Tom McCall produced a documentary for KGW-TV "Pollution in Paradise" that was a clarion call for cleaning up the river. McCall asked "do we have a right to ask why more hasn't been done by more people" to clean up the river? Now is the time to raise that question again, and to answer it with finality — we are ready to finish the work.

Dennis McLerran is EPA regional administrator for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Richard Whitman is interim director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.