The Trump administration has put industrial polluters in the driver's seat in the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup project, and the EPA is in final talks with four of them to spearhead a pivotal study gauging the current health of the Willamette River.
State regulators and other parties say the EPA and the industrial companies have backed off their initial "baseline study" proposal that many feared would lessen cleanup requirements for the polluted river. However, state and local officials, Northwest tribes and environmentalists remain wary that the four polluters could tilt the study to reduce their cleanup obligations.
The EPA has refused to disclose the four companies that would fund and manage the baseline study, called the Pre-RD Group. But the Portland Tribune has learned that the group includes Arkema, which once manufactured DDT on the river. Other members being cited by local observers, though still unconfirmed, include Evraz, a Russian-owned steel company; and the Marine Group, which may be more than one entity. The roster of companies involved with the Pre-RD Group also appears to be shifting, sources said.
ExxonMobil had been cited by some sources as one of the four, but Charlotte Huffaker, a media advisor for the company, stated in an email that "ExxonMobil is not part of the Pre-RD Group." The oil company declined to offer any additional comments.
PGE also was cited as part of the group earlier, but spokesman Steve Corson said in an email that the Portland electric utility is not "one of the parties currently working with EPA."
EPA shifting terms
Kevin Parrett, the Oregon Department of
Environmental Quality's point person for the Superfund cleanup, said state regulators are relieved that many of their objections to the initial baseline study plan were addressed.
"It got off to a bad start," but "I'm feeling good," Parrett said. "We got most of what we asked for."
However, in written comments sent to the EPA Oct. 27 about the pending deals, DEQ wrote that it "remains concerned that the Pre-RD Group and others may attempt to stretch the use of the proposed data to draw conclusions that simply cannot be made before completion of active remediation...."
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, said he's concerned some polluters are trying to avoid paying their share to clean up the river, and that it's time to get on with the river cleanup.
"You can rethink this forever," he said in an interview. "I'm very concerned about the efforts to essentially unravel this 16 years of work before completion of active remediation...."
Deal may be close
The EPA is in final talks with the Pre-RD Group and appears close to inking a consent order to proceed with the study, Parrett said. EPA now hopes to ink the consent order by December, he said.
It took the EPA more than 16 years to devise the final cleanup plan for the Portland Harbor Superfund, released in January during the waning days of the Obama administration. The actual cleanup is slated to cost more than $1 billion and take another 13 years.
Some past studies of polluted river sediment and contaminated fish are now up to 10 years old, so the EPA needs to document current conditions before the cleanup begins.
"This is the foundation for everything that moves forward in the cleanup," said Laura Shira, environmental engineer for the Yakama Nation, which is heavily involved in the Superfund process. "This will be how we evaluate and compare and determine if the remedy is protective."
EPA staying mum
The EPA has insisted on keeping the names of the four companies secret, prompting leaks and speculation about their identities. Some local observers fear that's because the list includes companies that are among the biggest polluters in the river and who have fought the cleanup.
EPA officials in Washington D.C. nixed an interview request placed to the agency's regional office in Seattle, which had been overseeing the Superfund cleanup.
In response to a query from the Portland Tribune, Arkema acknowledged it is part of the Pre-RD Group.
"Arkema, as well as others, intend to develop a scientifically and technically sound engineering design for remediation of the Portland Harbor that is protective of human health and the environment and is compliant with the Superfund process," stated Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith in an email.
Parrett declined to disclose names of the four parties, but when asked about Arkema, he said the former DDT manufacturing site is "probably the second-most contaminated site in the Portland Harbor, and they have not been negotiating with the EPA to do cleanup."
ExxonMobil also has avoided accepting responsibility for its purported role in polluting the river near its bulk fuel facility. It alleges the contamination there is from the nearby Gasco site, a responsibility of NW Natural, Parrett said.
Evraz and The Marine Group did not respond to requests for comment about whether they are part of the Pre-RD Group.
The original fund that gave the "Superfund" program its name paid to clean up highly contaminated sites, but it ran out of money long ago. EPA now relies on "potentially responsible parties" — entities on the hook to cover cleanup costs — to finance ongoing Superfund work.
The baseline study could cost up to $10 million, said Parrett, manager of DEQ's Northwest regional cleanup program.
The state of Oregon, thanks to $8 million allocated by the Oregon Legislature this year, was prepared to finance the baseline study, and submitted an outline of a proposal on May 24 to the EPA, in tandem with the city of Portland and NW Natural.
While the state and city and NW Natural are among scores of potentially responsible parties — often called PRPs — they also want to see the long-delayed cleanup begin. But instead of negotiating with those three parties, the EPA went with private companies in the Pre-RD Group.
The Pre-RD Group's initial proposal called for re-evaluating some of the cleanup standards approved in January. Everyone from Gov. Kate Brown to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler objected, along with Native American tribes and environmental groups.
Under pressure, the EPA agreed to consult the state and the tribes, and accept their comments about the pending Pre-RD Group deal.
New direction at EPA
It's no surprise the new EPA leadership would approach the cleanup differently, as Trump appointed a close ally of the oil industry, Scott Pruitt, to lead the agency.
Observers in Portland have noticed that more day-to-day decisions now are being made at EPA headquarters, not in Seattle, and that information is less forthcoming.
"There's a lot of secrecy and a lot of fear," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, who is closely following the Superfund cleanup.
"I think the four PRPs remaining anonymous was somebody exerting their power," said Jackie Calder, co-chairwoman of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group. "They probably got a little bit more support from the administration to get away with that," Calder said. "It's their opportunity; they're going to use it."
In her 16 years as a citizen monitoring the Superfund cleanup, Calder said the polluters have been forestalling having to spend money on actual cleanup. "They kept saying EPA was dragging their feet; it was hogwash," Calder said.
Parrett is optimistic the EPA will complete negotiations with the Pre-RD Group soon, and then sign an Administrative Order on Consent that spells out the four companies' obligations.
"The focus needs to be on the actual cleanup," he said.
Reporter Nick Budnick also contributed to this story.