Portland Harbor is a critical economic engine stalled by the uncertainty and stigma of being a Superfund site. It will take decades to restore the Lower Willamette River and the transition will be unpleasant, expensive and complex. And crucial.
STORY BY BEN JACKLET // PHOTOS BY MICHAEL G. HALLE
Like many Portland Harbor businesses, Schnitzer Steel is both an important employer and a source of pollution.
At first glance, the vacant 50-acre property next to the railroad bridge looks like an ideal stage for creating jobs, with a deep-water channel to the Pacific Ocean, rail access and a broad expanse of level, cheap land. Situated in the heart of Portland’s industrial harbor, it occupies an enterprise zone as well as an Urban Renewal Area, meaning government incentives are available for investors.
Yet nobody is investing, because nobody wants to inherit the liability. Groundwater monitoring wells dot the property, and workers out in the muddy field take samples and record data as part of a seemingly endless cleanup that is a prelude to bigger and more expensive cleanups to come.
The Arkema site, as this property is known, is Ground Zero of the complicated mess known as the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Industrial pesticides including DDT were manufactured here, and toxins drained straight into the Willamette River. A drainage ditch from another long-closed chemical plant that used to make Agent Orange added to the toxic soup. A nearby lake is so contaminated that it needs to be drained and capped. Plans call for a huge underground barrier wall to stop the flow of groundwater into the river, combined with extraction wells to pump out dirty water and treat it. Two massive corporations, Arkema (which recently spun off from the French multinational company Total) and Sanofi-Aventis (the fourth-largest pharmaceuticals company in the world), are fighting over liability. The larger effort to clean up the Lower Willamette River is on hold until they clean up their messes because no one wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up a 10-mile stretch of river, only to have it recontaminated.
Superfund is not a process anyone wants to go through twice.
Industrial employers such as Schnitzer, which exports scrap steel to China, boost Oregon’s economy by bringing traded sector revenue into Portland.
Both upstream and downstream from the abandoned Arkema property, at far livelier waterfront properties throughout the harbor, workers are welding barges and railcars, manufacturing steel pipes and silicon wafers. Trucks haul trash to the transfer facility, parts to factories and finished products to market. Freight trains rumble through sprawling rail yards. Gasoline gushes in from the pipeline that connects Portland with the refineries of Cherry Point, Wash. Huge ships import Toyotas and televisions and export wheat and soda ash, the principal ingredient used to make glass.
The basic industries on which Portland was built continue to hum along even after two years of recession, as vital to the regional economy as ever. “We have a manufacturing base in this city that most mayors would give their left arms for in terms of who’s operating here and how successful they are,” says Mayor Sam Adams.