There are finally signs the long-stalled cleanup of the Willamette River north of downtown Portland is taking shape, 17 years after the Portland Harbor was declared a federal Superfund site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a deal Tuesday, Dec. 19, with four industrial polluters, who agreed to fund and oversee a $14 million baseline study of conditions in the river, which will be used to gauge the effectiveness of the EPA's upcoming $1 billion, seven-year cleanup effort.
Officials from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the city Bureau of Environmental Services, the state and city agencies working most closely on the Superfund process, say they are hopeful the baseline study will pave the way for river cleanups.
Environmental groups and Native American tribes complained the study shortchanges wildlife, and that it emerged via a backroom deal with some of the companies that have been dragging their feet on the cleanup.
A key business group praised the deal, saying the baseline study should break a logjam and prod dozens of polluters to begin agreeing on each one's share of the cleanup costs.
Despite the mixed reviews, one thing is clear. The EPA is beginning to work on agreements with past river polluters to begin planning site cleanups, including NW Natural, the Port of Portland, the state and the city of Portland.
EPA Director Scott Pruitt sent top advisor Albert Kelly to Portland last week. Kelly met with government, environment and tribal representatives, and stressed Pruitt's commitment to make the Portland Harbor cleanup a priority. Local leaders were pleased to hear the Trump administration agreed to enforce the $1 billion cleanup plan, called the Record of Decision or ROD, rather than try to dilute it.
DEQ Director Richard Whitman sent a letter to the EPA on Dec. 19, thanking the agency for Kelly's visit, and ticking off several ways the stalled cleanup is moving forward.
"We are pleased to hear the EPA will not allow the collecting and analysis of baseline data to be used as a pretext for reopening or amending the ROD," Whitman wrote, "nor as an excuse for delaying remedial design and cleanup."
It's common for the EPA to reach consent orders with past polluters to take charge of Superfund studies and cleanups, because there is no fund left in the Superfund to pay for them. But the Trump administration raised concerns when it declined an offer by the state, city and NW Natural to fund the baseline study, instead negotiating with an evolving cast of past industrial polluters. The original proposal emerging from the four companies, known as the Pre-RD Group, sought to weaken the cleanup standards in the EPA plan. The EPA backed down when the state, city and tribes cried foul.
The Dec. 19 deal puts four companies in the driver's seat to fund and oversee the baseline study: Arkema, a French-owned company that once manufactured DDT on the riverfront; Evraz Inc., a Russian-owned steel company; The Marine Group LLC, a San Diego-based yacht builder and ship-repair company; and Schnitzer Steel Industries Inc., based in Portland.
They aren't the only ones funding the study. Sixty-five private companies in the PCI group, which are all on the hook to pay Superfund cleanup costs because of past practices on the river, announced they will contribute to the $14 million study. The PCI group has been meeting for years to hash out their respective liabilities to cover cleanup costs, known in Superfund lingo as the "allocation" process.
An industry source involved in those negotiations said the PCI companies will pay one-fourth of the study costs, and they view the Pre-RD Group as a subset of PCI, akin to a "board of directors."
When Trump put industry-friendly Pruitt in charge of the EPA, companies in the PCI group privately indicated they could command better terms when negotiating their cleanup obligations.
Now the cleanup is "starting to gel," the industry insider said.
The baseline study will provide scientific data pointing to the respective share of cleanup costs that scores of past polluters, known as "potentially responsible parties," should pay. That appears to be easing resistance among PCI members to agree on who owes what, the source said. Once the two-year baseline study is finished, he expects industrial parties will cooperate more with the EPA on cleanups.
"I think folks are happy with this result," he said. "They're doing the work that they have to do and it's costing them money."
Environmental-minded groups aren't so positive.
In June, EPA laid out several species whose status needed to be evaluated before the cleanup begins, to help measure the effectiveness of the $1 billion effort. Those were salmon, lamprey, sturgeon, crayfish, carp, clams, small-mouthed bass and osprey eggs.
But in the final consent order, "all of those species were eliminated from being monitored" except one— small-mouthed bass, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland.
"Understanding how contaminants are getting into wildlife populations is critical to seeing if the cleanup is effective," he said.
"I would say it's concerning," said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. "The whole level of contamination will just be based on that species."
Without that data, the Superfund process won't have a comprehensive baseline of current river conditions, said Laura Shira, environmental engineer for the Yakama Nation.
"We're just concerned how this data will be used to shrink the active cleanup area," she said.
The Yakama Nation also is concerned about the precedent set when EPA negotiated the Pre-RD deal from its Washington D.C. headquarters, relegating EPA leaders in Region 10 offices, who have managed the Portland Harbor Superfund project, to the sidelines. "We expect (the industrial polluters) will be able to circumvent Region 10 in any kind of dispute-resolution process in the future," Shira said.
The city is OK with having small-mouthed bass serve as a indicator species to monitor the progress of the cleanup, said Annie Von Burg, the Bureau of Environmental Services senior program manager for Superfund. However, she said, additional species must be monitored to update "fish advisories," health warnings posted on the Willamette alerting fishers they shouldn't eat too many contaminated fish.
Having only small-mouthed bass as an indicator species shouldn't change the cost or terms of the subsequent harbor cleanup, said Kevin Parrett, DEQ's manager for its Northwest regional cleanup program.
But the EPA needs to expand the species it evaluates, and add more sections of polluted riverbed sediment that are monitored, he said.
"Because the carp are the most contaminated species, we definitely need to have good baseline data," Parrett said. The tribes have demanded baseline studies of the lamprey and Chinook salmon populations, he noted, and EPA has previously suggested it needs to monitor the clams and crayfish in the river.
The DEQ fully "expects" EPA will need to expand the baseline monitoring, Parrett said, by finding other potentially responsible parties willing to pay for those additional costs.
One thing not under dispute is that there's forward movement on cleanups:
• NW Natural is working on a remedial design, a prelude to cleanup work, on its Gasco site. That's the most expensive of dozens of sites that must be decontaminated.
• EPA is working with the city of Portland, PacifiCorp, CBS, Cargill and others on a remedial design for a contaminated hot spot on River Mile 11.
• The Port of Portland is in discussions with the EPA about cleaning up its Terminal 4 site.
• And the state is negotiating with EPA on a cleanup of the Willamette Cove site.
The city and state have been prodding EPA to move forward on selected cleanups, and progress on those sites suggests that is beginning to happen.
The DEQ's biggest concern now is that private companies will contine to dawdle over who pays what, Parrett said. "DEQ's concern continues to be that the allocation will drag on," he said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.