Portland Harbor sinks under Superfund stigma

| Print |  Email
Articles - January 2010
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
“Seventy-five million dollars, and not a dollar of that went to cleanup,” says Wyatt. “If you are a private party thinking of investing in the harbor, these figures aren’t lost on you. It really does have a chilling effect.”

Wyatt, who served as chief of staff to Gov. John Kitzhaber when the EPA moved to list the harbor, has been involved with the Superfund process from day one. He says the slow pace is probably inevitable considering the complexity of the harbor, with more than 100 potentially responsible parties, 10 miles of river plus upland properties that drain into the river, the Endangered Species Act listing of migrating salmon, the rights of tribes with historic fishing rights, and a 150-year history of development under constantly evolving environmental laws.

“You don’t want to come to a conclusion too quickly and leave something out, because that could lead to serious litigation and further delay,” says Wyatt. “Everybody wants to be sure that we only do this once. It’s just too expensive and too disruptive to do it again.”

But complexity is just one factor contributing to the delays. Attempts to unite the business community to pursue a common solution have run into resistance. Major players in the harbor including Schnitzer Steel, Arco, Oregon Steel (now Evraz) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad refused to sign key documents with the EPA. A second business group led by Schnitzer and ExxonMobil, the Blue Water Group, has formed in addition to the Lower Willamette Group, and the relationship between the two groups has been contentious because the Lower Willamette Group has been much more proactive in funding the investigation. The litigation has already begun, and many more lawsuits will follow once it finally comes time to decide how to clean up the mess and how to pay for it.

Another factor contributing to delays is the pollution itself. Arkema isn’t the only waterfront property that still poses a threat to the river. Industrial solvents have been detected in the river near the Siltronic silicon wafer plant and the Gunderson barge and railcar plant. NW Natural’s former Gasco site, which burned coal and oil to illuminate the city in Portland’s early years, is extensively polluted with petroleum waste. Schnitzer’s auto recycling operation is a source of PCBs from plastic parts being shredded. Pollution from the Rhone Poulenc site inland from Arkema has seeped all the way down into the basalt zone.

Early initiatives to clean up these properties have cost companies millions but produced mixed results. Until these high-priority sites are contained, the broader cleanup of the river is on hold. In the meantime, the EPA has forbidden maintenance dredging in the Willamette, and the channel is filling in to the point where extra-large ships cannot navigate it while fully loaded. This has not posed a big problem yet because marine traffic is down, but it could prove significant once the economy rebounds.

Nine years into the process, it is far from decided what the ultimate remedy will be for cleaning up the river. The port’s preferred strategy would involve building an in-water “confined disposal facility” for storing toxic sediments. This approach has received positive reviews at similar restoration sties throughout the nation, but it has generated more than 10 letters of criticism for every letter of support in Portland.

Whatever the solution ends up being, actual cleanup is unlikely to begin for a very long time. Steve Gunther, an environmental contractor who resigned from the harbor’s Community Advisory Group in frustration, says, “This is a billion-dollar project with no timeframe, no budget, no vision and no accountability. How long do you have to study this thing before somebody finally goes in there and pulls the trigger?”

Gunther calls Superfund process “a jobs program for lawyers, lab rats and consultants.”

It is also a process capable of generating monstrous piles of paper. A document cataloging the Portland harbor documents that the EPA has on file in Seattle runs 2,000 pages. And that’s just the index.

_MGH0284
Maritime trade and jobs are both down throughout the harbor.

Even as concerns over environmental liability have spread fear and delayed deals, investment in the harbor continued — at least until the recession took hold. City planner Steve Kountz says harbor businesses invested $400 million from 2003 to 2007. Several companies expanded their operations, and at least one newcomer, Advanced American Construction, the contractor that built the Eastbank Esplanade, purchased a waterfront property and set up operations near the St. Johns Bridge. Other promising local companies such as Nexion, which refurbishes wind turbines, have expressed interest in moving to the harbor, and the Portland Development Commission is searching for innovative ways to help these deals go through, in spite of the burden of Superfund.



 

More Articles

The Backstory: Portland Youth Builders

The Latest
Wednesday, June 03, 2015
blog002 1BY JASON E. KAPLAN | STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As part of our green workplaces story, Oregon Business checked out a community service project undertaken by Portland Youth Builders, a nonprofit alternative high school. In partnership with Whole Foods, PYB built garden boxes for a Home Forward  housing site. Home Forward is a government agency that provides housing for low income residents and people with disabilities.


Read more...

The Private 150: From Strength to Strength

July/August 2015
Monday, July 13, 2015
BY KIM MOORE

Revenues in Oregon's private, for profit sector maintained solid growth as the economy continued to rebound.


Read more...

5 stats about Oregon fireworks

The Latest
Thursday, June 18, 2015
fireworksthumb001BY JACOB PALMER | DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR

Fireworks are a booming industry, even if the pyrotechnics have turned July 4th into a day fire marshals, and many residents, love to hate.


Read more...

Brain Storm

July/August 2015
Monday, July 13, 2015
BY CAMILLE GRIGSBY-ROCCA

Can the brave new world of neurotechnology help an OHSU surgeon find a cure for obesity?


Read more...

Fixing Oregon’s broken roads

The Latest
Tuesday, June 09, 2015
RUCCostComparison rev4-30BY KIM MOORE | RESEARCH EDITOR

The technology at the center of Oregon’s road usage fee reform.


Read more...

Reader Input: Road Work

March 2015
Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Oregon's roads are crumbling, and revenues from state and local gas taxes are not sufficient to pay for improvements. We asked readers if the private sector should help fund transportation maintenance and repairs. Research partner CFM Strategic Communications conducted the poll of 366 readers in February.

0315 input01 620px

 

Reader comments:

"I feel private enterprises are capable of operating at a higher efficiency than state government."

"This has been used in Oregon since the mid-1800s. It is not a new financing method. This form of financing may help Oregon close its infrastructure deficit by leveraging funds."


Read more...

Loose Talk

July/August 2015
Friday, July 10, 2015
BY AMY MILSHTEIN

When gossip crosses the line.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS