Disputes, other issues push Superfund plan to 2017, or beyond

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund site, north of the Fremont Bridge, is being delayed until 2017 or beyond because of EPA budget constraints and changes in the regional federal leadership.Cleanup of the long-polluted Portland Harbor won’t commence for at least three more years, after the Environmental Protection Agency announced another delay in completing its final action plan for the Superfund site.

EPA regional Administrator Dennis McClerran told Portland city officials last week the agency won’t complete its final Record of Decision for the 11-mile-long Superfund cleanup until 2017, and that’s a “soft target,” says City Commissioner Nick Fish.

Lori Cohen, deputy director for Superfund projects at the EPA’s regional office in Seattle, says the early-2017 target could be delayed further if there are continuing disputes among the various parties.

Such disputes seem inevitable, given that scores of Portland Harbor employers face a cleanup tab that could top $1 billion. The EPA and other parties are even disputing who’s to blame for the latest delays.

The EPA named the Portland Harbor a Superfund site back in 2000. But little cleanup has taken place, leaving the Willamette River bottom laden with PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals dumped into the river decades ago.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has made it a priority to finally launch the harbor cleanup, and Fish is working closing with the mayor.

“There’s a cloud over the river that is damaging to our local economy,” Fish says.

Cleanup delays prolong the state of limbo among industrial companies with operations along the river, many of them facing huge liabilities for toxic discharges that occurred decades ago. “There are 40,000 river-dependent jobs, mostly blue-collar jobs which we’d like to protect and grow some day,” Fish says.

Delays also prolong Portlanders’ exposure to Willamette River fish that absorbed toxic chemicals, which can make their way up the food chain.

Fish says budget cuts at EPA, including the recent retirement of its chief Portland Superfund Project Manager Chip Humphrey, are partly to blame for the latest delay. The EPA is having to slash 100 positions from its roughly 600-employee workforce at its Seattle regional headquarters, Fish notes. Humphrey was one of 25 Seattle staff who took early retirement incentives offered as part of the staffing cuts.

The Lower Willamette Group, a consortium of 12 harbor industrial companies plus the city of Portland and Port of Portland, also faults the EPA for delays. “We would like to see EPA devote additional resources to the project so the process can move more quickly,” the Lower Willamette Group’s spokeswoman Barbara Smith relayed in an email.

But EPA says the delay is due to inadequate work by the Lower Willamette Group.

Polluters pay

Unbeknownst to most citizens, Congress doesn’t provide money any more for Superfund cleanups. Instead, the Superfund process now relies on

getting advance funding from

Potential Responsible Parties — those likely to be billed for the cleanup. About 150 parties have been identified.

The Lower Willamette Group stepped up to advance some $110 million so far to fund technical studies and other Superfund work at the harbor, including EPA staff time. The largest chunk of that money has come from Portland sewer ratepayers.

EPA officials insist the Portland Superfund project is a national priority for the agency, and say the latest delay has nothing to do with Humphrey’s retirement or staff cuts.

“The reason for the delay is the fact that the documents submitted by the (Lower Willamette Group) are deficient and need to be corrected prior to EPA developing a cleanup plan,” says Kristine Koch, who has been co-project manager with Humphrey.

The Lower Willamette Group submitted a draft feasibility study, which outlines a range of cleanup options, in March 2012. The EPA harshly criticized that draft, saying in a letter it has “many deficiencies and needs substantial revision.” EPA charged the group overstated the effectiveness of lower-cost cleanup options and gave short shrift to identifying “hot spots” of highly contaminated parts of the river, among other shortcomings.

Politicians intervene

The EPA vowed in 2012 to take the feasibility study in-house, rather than delegating it to the Lower Willamette Group, and it fined the consortium $125,500 in April 2013 for the “unacceptable quality” of its report.

But EPA has been pressured to speed up the cleanup by Portland-based members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. Last October, the EPA conceded to delay levying that fine, on condition the Lower Willamette Group improves its cooperation with the federal agency.

In January, Cohen says, the EPA agreed it would collaborate more with the Lower Willamette Group in revising the 2012 draft feasibility plan. “There’s a lot more give and take than the EPA might do on another site,” Cohen says. “That’s why we modified the schedule.”

The Portland Harbor also is among EPA’s most complicated Superfund sites, because of the large territory involved and the scores of polluters, including local governments like the city and port, likely to be held responsible.

EPA’s top national Superfund Director Jim Woolford came to Portland for last week’s meeting with Fish and other key leaders, Cohen says. “That shows this is a very high priority project for our Superfund program,” she says.

While it stands to reason that EPA staff cuts — and political pressure from Portland’s Congressional delegation — are affecting EPA’s timetable, some say the agency is being unfairly criticized by the Potential Responsible Parties who will ultimately pay for the cleanup.

“They’ve been a convenient punching bag over the years,” says Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper.

The timetable slid when the EPA found fault with the Lower Willamette Group’s draft feasibility study, Williams says.

Jim Robison, chairman of the Community Advisory Group that has represented everyday citizens in the Superfund process the past 14 years, also defends the EPA. The agency largely agreed with the criticisms raised by the citizens group, Robison says, and undertook a total rewrite of the draft feasibility study.

The latest delay may be beneficial in one respect, he says, because it allows more time for the EPA to study the effectiveness of alternative methods of removing pollutants, such as using natural biological agents to break down the contaminants.

“You want it to move forward, but you want it to be done right,” Robison says.

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