My View: Public pressure led to better harbor plan

Published by Portland Tribune 1/26/2017

Advocates for the cleanup of the Willamette River's Portland Harbor superfund site are celebrating victory after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a plan that nearly doubles the amount of harmful toxic waste set for removal from the depths of the river.

After pushback from the community and tribes, the EPA responded to those concerns by adding more than 100 acres of additional contamination to be removed from the river, more aggressive riverbank treatments and stronger strategies to cap remaining contamination.

EPA regional director Dennis McLerran said this more vigorous plan is the result of community groups like the Portland Harbor Community Coalition and tribes who, as part of a broad grassroots mobilization, were able to draw in over 5,300 comments on the EPA's proposed plan — the most ever for superfund public comment processes in the Northwest region.

Communities throughout the region should be claiming this as a major win. This section of the river is a significant public health risk for many individuals and families, and we are eager to see the over 150 parties responsible for cleanup to initiate their part of the cleanup as soon as possible.

The river, which stretches from Southern Oregon to Sauvie Island, became victim to major pollution between the 1920s and '60s, when an infrastructure boom led to reckless dumping, filling it with hazardous heavy-metals, PCBs, pesticides like DDT, and various other harmful agents.

EPA's scaled-back proposed plan over the summer, offering only an 8 percent cleanup, was met with heavy pushback.

There are still, however, community concerns with the final plan. Namely, restrictions against eating fish from the river will not be lifted at the end of the 13-year cleanup.

And there are still questions as to whether the most disproportionately impacted communities will benefit, in response to the many historical and current burdens over decades to Native Americans, blacks, immigrants and refugees, houseless and homeless individuals, and the younger generations from our most-affected communities.

But all are in agreement of the need to quickly move forward.

The EPA, state of Oregon, and city of Portland have stated the need to take immediate steps to ensure that our most vulnerable communities, especially those that depend on fish from the Superfund area, are aware of the risks, and that those same communities get to play an active role in the ongoing research, monitoring and cleanup through education, jobs training and environmental career pathways.

In the long-term, impacted communities must have access to riverside land for community-based environmental education, training, recreation and food production, as well as integrated affordable housing in upland areas.

PHCC and its partners recognize this plan as a significant step ahead and look forward to working closely with the U.S. EPA and regional parties in the next remedial phase of the Portland Harbor superfund site — with the most-affected communities at the forefront.

Donovan Smith is an artist and Portland journalist. Cassie Cohen is the coordinator and founding member of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition. The Portland Harbor Community Coalition is a group of individual community members and community of colors, conservation, environmental justice, and Native organizations, all invested in the outcome of the Willamette River's Superfund site cleanup. For more information on the PHCC and its efforts, visit: