There are compelling reasons to care about Willamette Cove and compelling reasons for Metro to fund a more effective cleanup.
The cove has long been a secret 30-acre riverfront oasis of nature in north Portland. But it is also a destination on two regional trails: the Willamette Greenway Trail, also known as the npGreenway, and the 40-Mile Loop Trail circling the entire metro area. The cove's rare 3,000 feet of urban waterfront is owned by the public via a Metro purchase in 1996 and is easily accessible by foot, vehicle and city bus. It could provide access to environmental education for racially diverse urban students who are not usually included in field trips to outlying nature parks due to high transportation costs.
Willamette Cove is located on the east bank of the Willamette River between the University of Portland and the St. Johns Bridge. By the 60s, industry was mostly gone and buildings demolished. But human neglect created an opportunity for nature to reassert itself. Re-greening has produced an oasis for city dwellers and a haven for wildlife. Coyotes can now be seen weaving in and out of distant tall grass. Rabbits cavort and spring into the brush at the slightest sound. Cedar waxwings and other winged residents seek sustenance in native madrone, oak and cottonwood. Eagles, osprey and kingfishers hunt near the riverbank, while hawks soar upward seeking land prey. Willamette Cove has become a getaway, an unofficial nature park for urbanites, with well-worn paths winding through grasses, shrubs and trees always with the river in view. The uniqueness of the site lies in its urban setting, while at the same time giving visitors the impression of being completely engulfed in nature due to its position between the 300-foot-tall Willamette Bluff and river.
But left behind by industry are serious toxins: PCBs, dioxins and heavy metals such as lead that make unsafe conditions. Metro councilors have previously asked for public comment on the site's cleanup (Portland Tribune, "What does public want in cleanup of Willamette Cove," January 2019). They will soon decide whether to leave hazardous waste heaped in a large hill onsite or to remove it to appropriate disposal facilities.
Willamette Riverkeeper, Portland Audubon and 15 or so groups representing the public have asked for complete removal of hazardous soils. The groups say leaving it behind is not safe for wildlife or humans. Nor, they maintain, will it be stable near a river flood zone and on top of liquefiable fill sand directly over the east side fault in the event of an earthquake.
The Metro Parks and Nature Bond could be used for a better solution: removal. The estimated cost would be around $2 million of the $475 million bond. That is precisely why it had community support, to help make nature accessible to all Portlanders, including those who live in urban areas, have diverse incomes and diverse ethnic backgrounds. The cost is well worth the safety of visitors.
The public has spoken out clearly in favor of removal rather than storage of hazardous waste at Willamette Cove. Metro councilors' decision about cleanup is looming, but it is not at all clear all councilors are aware of the regional value of Willamette Cove, or are familiar with its value to urbanites, youth and those from marginalized communities. The public has spoken, but are Metro councilors listening?
Board chair, Friends of Baltimore Woods
Board member, Northwest Toxic Communities Coalition
Barbara Quinn lives in North Portland
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