OPINION: Willamette Cove deserves better
There are compelling reasons to care about the future of Willamette Cove.
It is one of the last riverfront parcels on the Willamette's urban stretch. The 27-acre site south of the St. Johns Bridge is publicly owned and includes an unusual 3,000-foot waterfront. It is Portland's hidden gem with stunning views of the bluff, river and Forest Park hills. It will soon include the Willamette Greenway Trail and become a regional attraction.
Concentrated industry located at the site starting in the early 1900s but gradually abandoned it. Left behind are soils laced with serious toxins: heavy metals, diesel fuel, polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs] and dioxins covering the entire site. Studies show they are a threat to the health of both humans and wildlife.
DEQ is in the lead for the cleanup of Willamette Cove. They recommend heaping up toxic soils onsite after removing only the hotspots. The remaining toxins would be covered with a so-called "cap" of sand. Signs would be required to warn visitors of the danger. DEQ would have to monitor it in perpetuity, although they have only factored the cost of monitoring over the next 30 years. The public comment period started around the same time as the pandemic and has not received the attention it should. It will be open only until Aug. 31.
Community groups advocating for the river, including Portland Harbor Community Advisory and Portland Harbor Community Coalition, have problems with the DEQ proposal and instead want to see full removal of contaminants to an offsite hazardous waste facility while leaving the native trees in place. They feel DEQ's proposal makes the likelihood of recontamination and exposure too high due to the site being a flood zone. There is also concern that the fill sand under the cove could liquify in a large expected earthquake. The DEQ's report conveniently leaves out the fact that the east side fault runs near the site.
DEQ admits there are uncertainties with their short-sighted recommendation, but insists a better option must show itself to be worth the cost (Staff Report: Recommended Remedial Action, pg 47). However, the cost of a re-do has not been factored in. The report mentions the need to design the toxic site for extreme weather events but is vague about what, if any treatments could withstand a large flood or earthquake. The devil is in the details, and there aren't any. Why not lessen the chance of recontamination and re-exposure by doing it right the first time?
Community-based advocates feel the best and most protective option corresponds to DEQ's option 3c: complete removal of contaminants to a hazardous waste facility while leaving native trees in place. The cost is about 20% more. Is it worth it to ensure long-term safety and less need for expensive maintenance? We advocates feel the site is special and well worth it.
Barbara Quinn is the president of Friends of Baltimore Woods.
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