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Settling for a 'cheap' river fix

Harbor neighbors say disposal facilities plan dredges up problems


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - St. Johns activist Barbara Quinn, outside the Port of Portlands Terminal 4, is opposed to plans to dispose dredged material from the Portland Harbor in containment facilities near her neighborhood along the Columbia River.For decades, industrial companies perched along the Portland Harbor used the Willamette River as a dumping ground for their chemical wastes.

Now that the long-running federal Superfund project is poised to finally clean up the resulting mess, Barbara Quinn hopes all the toxic sediment on the river bottom gets dug up and moved far away. So the North Portland activist is leery of a proposal to dredge contaminated sediment and pile it nearby — back in the water — in two giant heaps, off the main stem of the Willamette.

One of the piles would fill a Port of Portland boat slip at its Terminal 4; the other would occupy the Swan Island lagoon.

The piles would be walled off by sandy, damlike berms, to keep the sediment from migrating back into the main stem of the Willamette.

Government regulators call the in-water sediment piles “confined disposal facilities.”

Quinn calls them “toxic waste dumps.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulators say they are a safe and relatively cheap way to remove contamination where fish swim — thus preventing toxins from moving up the food chain to birds and humans.

Quinn, who sits on the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Committee that provides a citizen’s voice for the EPA Superfund cleanup, calls the idea a “short-term fix, cheap as possible.”

She fears the contaminants will wind up back in the river due to technical flaws, human error, floods or earthquakes. Toxins also could become airborne, Quinn says, exposing neighbors to carcinogens.

She’s not the only North Portland resident who finds confined disposal facilities in the neighborhood don’t pass the smell test.

“I don’t like the idea of leaving contaminated material in or next to the river,” says Jim Robison, chairman of the Community Advisory Committee, and a member since the polluted Portland Harbor became a Superfund site in 2000.

“There’s some real serious gene-mutating poisons down in that river bottom,” says Doug Larson, land-use chairman for the Friends of Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association. With confined disposal facilities, “they don’t go away,” he says. “Eventually they get into people.”

Saving money

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - One of the Port of Portland terminals where material dredged from the Willamette River could be stored in confined disposal facilities.While many North Portland residents and neighborhood groups are firmly opposed to confined disposal facilities, the idea is gaining favor among harbor property owners expected to pay for pollution cleanup.

A draft feasibility study estimates a cost of $117 per cubic yard to dispose of contaminated sediment off-site, such as a hazardous waste dump in Eastern Oregon, while a confined disposal facility or CDF is pegged to cost $87 per cubic yard.

The study lays out 10 cleanup scenarios costing from $250 million to $1.8 billion. No final cleanup decisions have been made yet.

But EPA regulators, who must approve the cleanup plan, say CDFs are used safely and effectively around the world, including in Puget Sound.

State environmental regulators also have no “significant issues” with CDFs, says Tom Gainer, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Portland Harbor project manager. Around the country, “they’re doing quite well,” he says. “They’re holding up.”

Pragmatic environmentalist

Willamette Riverkeeper, an environmental group closely monitoring the Superfund project, doesn’t want to rule out CDFs as a cleanup option. The group would prefer to remove all contaminated sediment completely from the water, says Travis Williams, executive director. But cost will be a factor when the EPA finalizes its cleanup plan, Williams says, and he prefers CDFs to leaving sediment in the river and capping it with rocks — an even cheaper option also under consideration.

“If it’s a choice between putting contaminated sediment in a CDF or leaving it in the river, I would put it in a CDF,” Williams says. “If you evaluate it from the chemistry or from the engineering standpoint, I think you can make a valid argument for the CDF.”

Peter deFur, a technical adviser with Environmental Stewardship Concepts hired to represent Willamette Riverkeeper and the Community Advisory Group, says CDFs can be safe and effective if built soundly and properly monitored over the years. “You want to make sure it’s over-engineered,” deFur says, much like oil tankers required to have double hulls.

Two CDFs on the East Coast failed in past years, he says, but the EPA is learning from its mistakes.

Likely recommendation

CDFs are likely to be among the range of options EPA recommends, says Sean Sheldrake, EPA project manager for the CDF component of the Superfund cleanup. “It dramatically reduces the costs for some of the sediments to be dredged and housed,” Sheldrake says.

In the draft feasibility study, CDFs are a component in nine out of 10 alternative cleanup scenarios. Capping contaminated sediments in place is a component in three of them.

The primary pollutants of concern in the Willamette River bottom are polycholinated biphenyls, or PCBs; dioxins; metals; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs; and pesticides such as DDT.

The EPA wouldn’t permit anything in a CDF that’s prone to leaching into the water, Sheldrake says, and most of the worrisome toxins bind with sediment and “aren’t terribly leachable.”

Before any sediment is stowed in a CDF, there would be soil tests akin to putting it into a blender flushed with liquid to see what bleeds into the liquid, Sheldrake says.

How they do it

If EPA adopts CDFs as a cleanup strategy, sediment from the river bottom would be dredged and moved via barge to the port or lagoon sites. A third proposed CDF, at the former Arkema DDT plant, doesn’t appear to have EPA’s blessing.

The material would be kept wet, which prevents it from getting airborne, Sheldrake says.

EPA took heed of concerns raised by the Community Advisory Group about earthquakes, floods and other matters, and bolstered the proposed designs, he says.

“They’re very highly engineered in terms of their stability,” he says. “It’s fairly easy to design for floods.”

Both CDFs would be designed to withstand a huge 9.0 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the main fault line offshore of the Oregon Coast. They would be built to withstand earthquakes of 6.2 magnitude with an epicenter in the immediate vicinity.

Political realities

Quinn hopes to convince the EPA not to approve any CDFs, and has gathered more than 1,300 petition signatures to that effect.

But even moving the sediment to a specially designed landfill, as she prefers, has its downside, Sheldrake says. It poses more risk of leakage onto land or air while sediment is hauled by barge or truck to Eastern Oregon.

Willamette Riverkeeper is taking heat for its open-minded attitude toward CDFs, but Williams says there are practical considerations. For one, EPA’s mandate isn’t what some might think.

“Their job is not to ‘clean up’ the river,” he says. “Their job is to reduce risk.”

And Portland liberals in Oregon’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, are pressing the EPA to move more quickly on the cleanup and assure that costs are manageable.

“People need to understand that wider dynamic,” Williams says.

Though the costs will be born largely by industrial polluters, the city of Portland is one of more than 130 “responsible parties” expected to pay its share to clean up the river. So is Northwest Natural, which means Portland-area residents and companies could pay those costs via their gas bills.

Still, Williams says industries along the river had a long run of exploiting the Willamette and financially benefiting from it. “Now it’s time to pay it back and meet their community obligation.”