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The Metro Council began to unpack the complicated cleanup effort at Willamette Cove Tuesday, as councilors were briefed on the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s selected plan for cleanup of the upland portion of the Metro-owned site in North Portland.

At a work session on April 27, the council heard from staff members about cleanup plans for the portion of the Willamette Cove property that sits above the Willamette River banks. The discussion revolved around the DEQ’s record of decision on the site cleanup, issued March 31, and the option for a contingency remedy that would allow Metro to move more of the contaminated soil off-site.

The DEQ-mandated plans for cleanup require all soil that’s contaminated above “hot-spot levels” for human health at the site be removed, as well as all soil with metals higher than hot-spot levels for plants and animals. Under that plan, the remaining contaminated soil above screening levels for human health would then be consolidated on-site in a large containment area with an engineered cap.

The optional contingency remedy requires the same level of cleanup at the site, but under that plan some or all of the contaminated soil would be removed and transported to another location.

The site was an industrial area for most of the 20th Century, with activities ranging from barrel building to ship repair. In 80 years of industrial use, heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and other toxic material leached into the soil. Metro bought the property in 1996, and has been managing it since that time while waiting for the state to issue its recommendations for site cleanup.

At Tuesday’s work session, Metro staff reported on the history of Willamette Cove, the current contamination at the site and DEQ’s selected cleanup plan, including the option for additional contaminated soil removal. After a question and answer period, Metro Council directed staff to enlist third-party expertise to help evaluate the contingency remedy, to more fully understand what it would entail.

“The contingency remedy needs to be looked at more thoroughly,” said Metro Council President Lynn Peterson. “Getting this right is worth the time invested.”

All councilors present at the meeting shared their thoughts on cleanup at the site, emphasizing the importance of Willamette Cove to the surrounding community, as well as Metro’s commitment to public health and safety.

“The Willamette Cove site really is a gem, and we want to do everything we can to make sure the community has the opportunity to reclaim this area,” said Councilor Juan Carlos González. “The upland cleanup we’re talking about now is just one of many things that needs to happen at the site to achieve the outcome we want to see.”

Metro staff members are working on a plan to incorporate tribal government interests and concerns at the site. Later this year, staff members will present Metro Council with a community engagement plan to identify priorities for passive recreational opportunities and trails in line with the protection and restoration of natural resources at Willamette Cove.

Councilor Mary Nolan, whose district includes Willamette Cove, emphasized the importance of careful decision-making now, to ensure the site is safe and accessible for future visitors.

“For this generation and seven generations hence,” Nolan said.

Investigation and cleanup of Willamette Cove are overseen by two agencies: the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. DEQ has oversight of the upland portion, from the top of the riverbank northward to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The Environmental Protection Agency has oversight of the in-water portion, from the top of the riverbank and into the river. Metro and the Port of Portland have worked with DEQ under a voluntary cleanup agreement for the past 20 years.

DEQ will oversee the cleanup in coordination with Metro and the Port of Portland. Next steps in preparation for cleanup action include a final, large-scale soil sample collection effort to confirm the depth of excavation necessary to achieve cleanup goals, tentatively scheduled to be completed by summer 2022. DEQ will also use this data to develop final plans for soil containment and off-site disposal.

Timing for planning and completing the cleanup of the upland portion of Willamette Cove is also tied to the Portland Harbor in-water cleanup work, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Metro purchased the Willamette Cove property in the St. Johns and Cathedral Park neighborhoods in 1996 using money from the 1995 natural areas bond measure. Plans to extend the North Portland Greenway Trail were stalled when high levels of contamination were found throughout the site in the late 1990s. The focus, instead, shifted to cleanup efforts.

Metro has worked with partners over the years on several cleanup efforts, including in summer 2004, when a cap was constructed in a portion of Willamette Cove in response to contamination from a neighboring site. In 2008, soils with high metal concentrations were removed from the central portion of the site.

The Oregon Health Authority recommended the site be closed for public health and safety since 2013 because of contamination and physical hazards.

In 2015 and 2016, soils with the highest levels of contamination were removed from the upland areas and replanted with native vegetation. But contamination still remains throughout the site and in the river that pose risks to human health and the environment.