Oregonian Editorial: Choosing the right cleanup

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Portlanders will over the next year hear wild things about the cleanup of Portland harbor:

That its cost is so stratospheric as to bankrupt riverfront industries and send jobs elsewhere.

That government officials have decided a tiny cancer risk in humans, produced by eating goat-choking quantities of fish daily from the polluted harbor, must be eliminated at unscalable cost.

That a deficient cleanup of PCB-laden river-bottom sediments will leave a city known for its environmental stewardship with a lifeless, barren waterway.

None is true. Yet each, rooted in fear, carries a whiff of truth sufficient to make cleanup of one of the nation's most complex Superfund sites into a cruel game of 3-D chess, where the player with the most lawyers, catchiest sound bite and quickest route to the courthouse could drive the outcome.

That's not what Portland and Oregon need. What's needed is a rational, brokered and collaborative way forward that achieves two things: economic vitality to the harbor's many industries and health for a river that provides recreation to people and an abundance of fish and wildlife.

Both must happen. Portland is Portland in part because of the Willamette, the river that runs through it, and we should care for it as it has served us.

The harbor was declared a toxic mess more than a decade ago. But the way forward that matters most starts in two weeks, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency releases a feasibility study with a menu of cleanup scenarios.

The choices will range from doing nothing -- or letting natural forces clear the river over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years -- to massively excavating PCB-laden river muck from a stretch more than six miles long and carting it off to a landfill yet to be named. Neither, of course, is feasible.

In designating Superfund status for the site, the federal government ordered removal or containment of toxics to make the river reasonably safe. But at no point was it ever expected the river would be so retooled as to kill off the industries depending on it. The scenario Portland must choose will be somewhere in-between.

The EPA, meanwhile, has all of 2012, or longer, to decide which of the cleanup scenarios -- all configured by a working group including city government and Portland industries -- best meets the test of tough Superfund laws.

But this is where Portland leaders come in right now. Following the release of the EPA's study, it will be essential that all groups -- industry, environment, city, state, federal, tribal and others -- find their way to the same table to register differences but claw for common ground. Portland city leaders -- Commissioner Amanda Fritz, for one -- should step up and make it so, leading a dialogue that also will invite public input.

They can start by clarifying the role of fish consumption levels in setting the river's cancer risk to humans -- this to clear white noise from the more important conversation of how the river should function in 10 or 20 or even 30 years.

A recent industry-sponsored study said it could take anywhere between $445 million and $2.2 billion to clean up the river, depending on the options chosen. Meanwhile, a press is on to immediately design a cleanup for the most-polluted segment at river mile 11 -- a worthy consideration given the pace of federal bureaucracy.

But hardest of all will be deciding who pays. On the hook are more than 100 companies -- some dating to wartime shipbuilders -- with many no longer operating in the harbor area. The unwieldy number of so-called responsible parties sets Portland harbor apart from most Superfund sites, dating back to Love Canal in upstate New York and Al Gore's Valley of Drums in Tennessee.

But that, too, affords Portland the opportunity to get this right and get it done through skilled collaboration, without fear. Industries, citizens and native species depend too much on the Willamette River to do anything less. And this is the year to chart the course.