EPA plans formal meeting with Willamette River polluters to pressure them to get started on Superfund cleanups
The EPA is putting pressure on past polluters of the Willamette River to start moving on cleanup plans for the long-stalled Portland Harbor Superfund project.
Nearly two years after the Environmental Protection Agency issued its $1 billion cleanup plan for a 10-mile stretch of the river north of the Broadway Bridge, and nine months after sending a warning letter to some 150 companies and governments on the hook to pay for the cleanup, the federal agency has invited all those parties to a private meeting in Portland on Dec. 4.
EPA regional spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski described it as "corralling the responsible parties to get things moving."
Top EPA officials from Washington, D.C., will come to town to discuss the federal agency's expectations for the cleanup. The agency has reserved a 500-seat auditorium at a federal office building on 911 N.E. 11th Ave, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The event will be closed to the public and the media, Skadowski said, as it's part of the negotiating process with some 150 past polluters, known as "potentially responsible parties."
So far, only a relatively small number of those parties have come forward to negotiate cleanup plans with the EPA, Skadowski said. "This is a bigger push to get more of them."
An industry source familiar with private negotiations between the parties and EPA took issue with that characterization. "To be honest, the private parties called for this meeting," the source said. "It's not really about them whipping folks to get them to the table."
Journeying to town that day are three pivotal EPA figures for Superfund cleanups: Jim Woolford, director of the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Remediation; Steven Cook, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA and chairman of its Superfund Task Force; and Cyndy Mackey, director of enforcement and compliance.
Before the meeting with past polluters, those three are scheduled to meet with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and city Commissioner Nick Fish at 11 a.m., said Annie Von Burg, the Bureau of Environmental Services senior program manager for the Superfund. Fish oversees that bureau, the lead city agency working on the Superfund effort.
The EPA's letter inviting the 150 parties to the Portland session states: "The EPA managers, staff and attorneys will be available to answer questions and discuss the EPA's expectations on moving forward with the cleanup of this very important site."
The list of potentially responsible parties, often dubbed PRPs, is a who's who of manufacturers and government agencies that have had operations along the river in the past century, including NW Natural, the U.S. Navy, Arkema (a DDT manufacturer), Exxon Mobil, the Port of Portland, the city of Portland, and others. Many of them allowed toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs to get into the river, which was standard practice for the day but is now known to have caused serious and persistent pollution.
"If EPA calls a meeting of the PRPs, we'll certainly participate in that and do our best to learn more," said Jack Isselmann, senior vice president for corporate communications at The Greenbrier Companies, a railroad and barge manufacturer based in Lake Oswego that is one of those parties.
The EPA named the Portland Harbor a Superfund site back in 2000, but little actual cleanup has taken place. Since President Donald Trump took office, the EPA has announced it wants to see substantial progress on the cleanup, and named it one of its priority Superfund sites.
Parties responsible for four heavily polluted sites have reached agreements with the EPA or are proceeding with plans to design their cleanups. Those include the city, Port of Portland, NW Natural and other entities. Those sites are designated as River Mile 11E, the most upstream site, north of the Broadway Bridge; the Gasco site where NW Natural operated; the port's Terminal 4, and Willamette Cove.
The Superfund is no longer a federal fund to pay for cleanups. Instead, the EPA identifies responsible polluters and inks legal agreements for them to cover the cleanup costs.
The vast majority of the PRPs have been biding their time before striking cleanup agreements with the EPA, and have balked at reaching "allocation agreements" among themselves, where each commits to paying a certain share of the cleanup costs at the sites where they are blamed for past pollution.
On March 16, the EPA sent a warning letter to the PRPs, noting it wanted to see significant final cleanup plans drawn up this year and next. In May 2019, a baseline study of pollutants in the river is set to be completed, which the PRPs had requested before they commenced with cleanups. When the EPA released its cleanup plan in January 2017, it relied on scientific data that was several years old, and didn't necessarily reflect current river conditions.
In the March letter, the EPA said it expected significant forward movement after that sampling is done, and would begin sending Special Notice Letters by the end of next year. In that process, the agency said it would "initiate consent decree negotiations" for the PRPs that don't initiate such agreements with the EPA. Those could give the agency the power to impose cleanup obligations on companies that don't step forth voluntarily.
"A large percentage" of the PRPs are waiting for that sampling to be done before they commit to cleanups, said one consultant working for one of the major PRPs, who was not authorized to speak for the company. But other PRPs are concerned that effective cleanups are assured upstream from their sites, lest their sites get recontaminated, he said.
Representatives of the various PRPs have been meeting behind the scenes in what's known as the allocation process, which divvies up the financial responsibility of various parties for different stretches of the river.
An industry source familiar with those negotiations said the parties are ready to move faster once a final report based on the recent sampling is released in September. "The allocation process will kick into high gear when the data is done," he said. "The private parties are on board and trying to get this done at this point."
The general public, environmental groups, federal tribes and others with a stake in the river cleanup have sat on the outside for many years, while secret negotiations among the PRPs take place behind closed doors, said Bob Sallinger, conservation manager for the Portland Audubon Society. "This process has been completely nontransparent," he said.
"We feel the PRPs have stalled and delayed and obfuscated for a long time. Our hope is EPA will continue to hold their feet to the fire."
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