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PHOTO BY ELI MANGOLD, COURTESY OF GROUNDWORK PORTLAND  - Rose Longoria, regional Superfund cleanup projects coordinator of Yakama Nation Fisheries, addresses a recent rally in front of the Portland Building, calling on the EPA to adopt a more aggressive plan to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site. One might think that polluters on the hook to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site would be overjoyed when the EPA slashed the projected price tag in half last month.

But many say EPA simply lowballed the cleanup cost estimate — without making substantial changes in the work that must take place — in its recommended cleanup plan released June 8.

The EPA seems to be “artificially lowering the cost,” making it more problematic to compare various cleanup options, said Jessica Hamilton, manager of the Port of Portland’s harbor environmental activities, at a breakfast meeting of the Columbia Corridor Association last week.

Representatives from the state of Oregon and city of Portland concurred that the price tag was too low.

EPA isn’t commenting on its proposal now that a public comment period has begun.

If its price tag is unreasonably low, that could help entice polluters to pay for the cleanup without undue litigation. But it also could result in many unforeseen consequences for the river cleanup later, if various parties think they were misled.

More than 150 companies and government entities could be asked to cover their share of the cleanup costs.

On Nov. 18, the EPA submitted a nearly $1.4 billion cleanup option for the Portland Harbor Superfund site to the National Remedy Review Board, which serves as a peer review panel for Superfund projects.

But when the EPA formally announced its cleanup plan to the general public last month, the price had dropped to $746 million. The agency said it made relatively minor changes to the plan unveiled in November, and attributed the lower price tag mostly to more refined cost estimates for the seven-year cleanup project.

Mike Jordan, director of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, told breakfast attendees that the EPA’s new price estimate is likely too low. Past EPA Superfund cleanups typically wound up costing 50 percent to 100 percent more than the agency initially estimated, said Jordan, formerly a top manager for the state of Oregon and Metro.

Richard Whitman, the natural resources policy adviser to Gov. Kate Brown, said the state and business and government groups working on the cleanup project did suggest to the EPA that it overestimated the costs in its November presentation to the National Remedy Review Board. “The EPA responded to that, to their credit,” Whitman told guests at Wednesday’s breakfast, many of them representing harbor employers who will be asked to pay for the cleanup.

But Whitman conceded the new price tag appeared to have erred in the opposite direction. “Some of the current cost estimates appear to be low,” he said, though he doesn’t think they are off as much as 50 percent.

Government agencies aren’t the only ones questioning EPA’s $746 million estimated cost for its cleanup proposal. The Portland Harbor Community Advisory Board, EPA’s official panel that represents neighbors and other groups, had a similar concern when it asked EPA officials about the new plan, says Barbara Quinn, who lives near the polluted harbor and sits on the advisory board.

“We asked them how can costs suddenly be so much less, and we didn’t really get any good answers,” Quinn said.

EPA spokesman Mark McIntyre said the agency wants to hear feedback on its plan and will respond to public comments after the 90-day comment period ends.

The Port of Portland, which has already removed 13,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment from eight of its contaminated sites in the Portland Harbor, is keen to get the cost projections right, as the community and EPA weigh alternative cleanup scenarios.

“You can get to a situation where the alternatives compare more favorably to the criteria EPA is required to balance,” Hamilton said.

She said the EPA’s November proposal called for dredging 167 acres of contaminated sediment, removal of 1.9 million cubic yards of sediment, and would take seven years — exactly the same as the new proposal unveiled in June. The November proposal called for active cleanup work on 304 acres, and cleaning up 19,000 lineal feet of riverbank, versus 291 acres of active cleanup and 17,000 lineal feet of riverbank cleanup in the newer plan, Hamilton said.

“Not actually a whole lot has changed to drive those costs down,” she said.

In the past, Superfund project budgets have required a 20 percent to 40 percent cushion for unexpected contingencies, Hamilton said. “EPA chose to use a 20 percent contingency factor” in its June proposal, she said.

The EPA designated only 5 percent of the budget to cover management costs, Hamilton said, and didn’t add any other oversight costs. The Port and other business and government groups active in the Superfund project have found those costs amount to 27 percent to 40 percent, she said.

Environmental groups, neighbors and Native American tribes are pushing the EPA to expand the amount of dredging in the cleanup plan and to rid the river once and for all of persistent toxins. EPA argues that at some point there are diminishing benefits to spending more money, and dredging up more acres of sediment.

And many Portlanders, including some on the City Council, have suggested that people need to evaluate alternate, perhaps more beneficial uses of the money spent on the Harbor cleanup, after a certain level of cleanup is reached.

Jordan, the Bureau of Environmental Services director, said that’s not a good way to look at it.

“If you’re not spending the money on cleaning up the river, you don’t have the money,” he said. That’s because the money ultimately comes from polluters, in both the public and private sectors, for a specific purpose. “So it’s kind of a false choice, if you will, when you make that kind of comparison.”

Jordan suggested a good way for the public to evaluate the cleanup scenarios would be to look back at the bureau’s Big Pipe project on the Willamette River.

The city was able to reduce the spillage of untreated sewage into the river by 96 percent, at a cost of $1.44 billion. That still leaves a few days a year, depending on weather, when sewage gets into the river and makes it unsafe for swimming and other activities. It also caused a huge increase in Portlanders’ sewer rates to pay for it.

But to get rid of 100 percent of sewer overflows would have cost $4.5 billion, Jordan said, requiring even more onerous utility rates.

The key to a successful Superfund cleanup project could well be getting to a similar “sweet spot.”

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