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Portland Harbor sinks under Superfund stigma

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Articles - January 2010
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Schnitzer Steel’s Ann Gardner, spokeswoman for the Working Waterfront Coalition, calls the harbor “an irreplaceable economic resource.”

About 38,400 people work in Portland Harbor. For job seekers who don’t have college degrees, these jobs are often the best option available, with healthy wages and full benefits. They are also jobs with heavy economic impact, because many are within the traded sector — products manufactured locally and sold elsewhere — bringing fresh income into the regional economy and driving prosperity.

But the harbor has lost 3,600 jobs since 2000 according to the most recent figures from the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. One reason for that stagnation is the uncertainty and stigma of Superfund. A six-mile stretch of the Willamette was listed as a Superfund site in 2000, and the boundaries have expanded to include 10 miles of river from the Broadway Bridge to Sauvie Island. While no one can predict with confidence exactly how long it will take to clean up the lower Willamette to the specifications of the Environmental Protection Agency and how much that effort will cost, few doubt that it will take decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sprawling waterfront properties such as the Arkema site are expected to remain vacant well into the future given that level of risk, even as business groups clamor for more industrial land. “As soon as you just mention that word Superfund, people start to quiver,” says Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland, the largest property owner in the harbor. “These are not properties for the meek at heart.”

The fear can lead to costly paralysis. According to a 2008 report paid for by the Portland Development Commission, failing to redevelop key harbor properties such as the Arkema site over the next 10 years could cost the region $320 million in investment, $81 million in annual payroll and 1,450 jobs.

In addition to the cost of doing nothing, there is the expense of the Superfund process itself. “Every year that this process continues costs us a tremendous amount of money in outside lawyers, outside consultants and all of the accoutrements that go along with something this big,” Wyatt says.

Every dollar harbor businesses spend on lawyers, consultants and settling tribal claims, is a dollar not spent on research and development, workforce training, and equipment. And there will be many more dollars spent before the Superfund process is resolved.

Taxpayers have spent $55 million to clean up the former McCormick and Baxter Creosoting Company.

Portland was built on the Willamette River, and the city’s 150-year history has forever altered that body of water. The West Coast’s first navigation channel enabled timber and grain exports starting in the 1850s. The railroad followed in the 1880s. After a lull during the Depression years, the harbor shifted into full gear during World War II, as workers built Liberty Ships for the Navy and rail cars for the Soviet Union.

Since the war years, healthy business clusters have developed in international trade, ship repair and metals manufacturing. Little thought was given to the ecological health of the river until the 1970s, when Gov. Tom McCall campaigned against pollution in the Willamette and spearheaded efforts to clean up Oregon’s defining waterway. But by then much of the damage had been done. It was just a matter of time before the pollution bill came due. City and state officials attempted to keep the federal government out of the picture by promising a voluntary cleanup, but in the end the EPA prevailed. The Superfund listing leaves more than 100 harbor businesses and property owners facing potential liability, including major employers such as the port, Gunderson, Schnitzer Steel, Daimler, Siltronic, NW Natural, United Pacific Railroad, Vigor Industrial, Sulzer Pumps, Esco and Evraz.



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