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Bradford Island near the Bonneville Dam was a toxic waste disposal site for decades.

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY - An aerial view of Bradford Island located in the Bonneville Dam complex on the Columbia River.Efforts to meaningfully clean up one of the most toxic sites in the Pacific Northwest located near Portland has hit a major milestone.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan announced Thursday, March 17, the designation of the Columbia River's Bradford Island as a Superfund site, adding the island to the nation's list of top-priority toxic cleanup sites.

Bradford Island is one of 11 other sites across the country that the Biden administration announced it would add to the Superfund list. With the addition of Bradford Island, Oregon now has 13 Superfund sites.

The designation will "help accelerate the long-overdue cleanup of this site," Regan said during a video conference Thursday. Elected officials, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Earl Blumenauer also were on the call. So was Yakama Nation Tribal Council Member Gerald Lewis.

Bradford Island, which is part of the Bonneville Dam complex 40 miles east of Portland, is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps used the island for more than 40 years as a toxic waste disposal site, among other uses, starting in 1938 when the dam became operational.

Last September, the EPA proposed designating the island as a Superfund site after receiving requests to do so from the Yakama Nation, Oregon, Washington and other community and environmental groups.

More than 1,700 public comments collected over two months following the proposal voiced overwhelming support for its listing, EPA officials said.

Listing Bradford Island will allow the EPA to play a more formal role in overseeing future cleanup efforts at the site. It also requires the creation of a legally enforceable agreement between the EPA and the corps that will define work schedules and include a dispute resolution process.

The cleanup will be funded and conducted by the corps, said Michelle Pirzadeh, acting EPA Region 10 administrator, whose jurisdiction covers Northwest states. Estimates of how much it will cost to clean up the site will be determined after additional assessments of the contamination are completed, Pirzadeh said.

Blumenauer, who noted that he has been pushing for the site to be cleaned up for more than 20 years, said the EPA's Superfund program recently received new funding. The 2021 Infrastructure and Jobs Act allocated $3.5 billion for the program. Blumenauer also wrote a key provision of the bill requiring Superfund site polluters to pay for such cleanups rather than taxpayers.

It's unknown how long it will take to clean up the site, and elected officials described the announcement Thursday as the beginning of what will be a long process.

"It can take years or decades of study before remediation begins at a Superfund site," Brown said. "It's incredibly important for EPA to consider early actions to reduce the levels of PCBs getting into fish, while plans are developed over the longer term for comprehensive cleanup of this site to restore it to a safe place for people and the environment."

Multiple studies conducted by the corps since the late 1990s have shown the presence of heavy metals and toxic chemicals, including carcinogens such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), in soils on the island and nearby in the Columbia River.

The corps removed some electrical equipment from the island and contaminated sediment from the river, but those efforts have failed to substantially reduce the presence of toxic chemicals.

PCBs have been detected in fish and shellfish tissues near the island. Exposure to such chemicals can cause adverse health effects, creating a particular risk to Native American tribes that have used the area as traditional hunting and fishing grounds for centuries.

In 2013, the health departments of Oregon and Washington jointly issued a fish consumption advisory, telling people not to eat fish that do not migrate to the ocean, called "resident fish," from the Bonneville Dam complex.

But fish from the area have long fed tribal communities, said Lewis of the Yakama Nation, adding that tribal peoples' rates of fish consumption are substantially higher than those of average Americans.

"Today, we can learn more and more about the contamination," Lewis said. "We are also learning what we have long understood that our way of life is being degraded due to the poisoning of our environment and our foods."

Lewis said that while the Yakama Nation is appreciative of the Superfund designation of Bradford Island, the Yakama people hope it will lead to exemplary engagement between the EPA and the tribe going forward.

The EPA expects to engage more closely with tribes who use the site in collaboration with the corps, Pirzadeh said.

"That includes talking to the community about their own concerns and their needs for information and how they want to engage in the process," she said.

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