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Portland Harbor sinks under Superfund stigma

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Articles - January 2010
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Much of the pollution in the Willamette can be traced to businesses that no longer exist in the harbor. The Arkema site, formerly known as the Atofina factory, is one example. It shut down its Portland operation in 2001 and is now one of many vacant and contaminated properties controlled by the chemical company that spun off from the 180 billion euro French oil and chemical company Total Fina Elf. The Department of Environmental Quality issued a press release in 2005 saying that Arkema had agreed to clean up the property, but the actual work still has yet to begin.

Another example of the daunting challenges of Superfund can be found directly across the river from Arkema, at the 43-acre McCormick and Baxter property. This former creosoting plant was named a Superfund site eight years before the rest of the harbor, and it has taken a Herculean effort to clean it up. About 33,000 tons of highly contaminated soil and debris were dug out of the ground here and transported by rail to the landfill in Arlington in 1999. Contractors built an 18-acre subsurface barrier wall to keep the creosote out of the river in 2003 and added a 23-acre sediment cap and a six-acre riparian soil cap in 2005. More than $55 million has been spent to clean up the property, and it still has not earned a clean bill of health.

All of that money has come from taxpayers. That’s because McCormick and Baxter is an “orphan” site, meaning its owners are insolvent. The “Superfund” after which the federal program is named no longer exists, because oil and chemical companies stopped paying into the fund long ago. The system is designed under the principle that the polluter pays, but when the polluter can’t pay things get tricky — and risky.

The University of Portland, which sits on the bluff above the McCormick and Baxter property, has been considering buying it for years and nearly signed a contract several years ago. But fears of inheriting onerous liability have slowed that deal to a glacial pace, even though it would seem like a bargain for the university and the neighborhood around it. A year ago the University expanded down to the waterfront by buying a 35-acre former shipbuilding facility and lumberyard adjacent to McCormick and Baxter, but that transaction proved neither fast nor smooth. UP assistant vice president James Kuffner estimates the university has invested $10 million over five years in a multi-agency effort to push the deal through. He says the university is excited to develop sports fields, salmon habitat, rowing facilities and environmental labs along the river, but the intensity of the process and the number of attorney hours required made him hesitant about a second acquisition.

Kuffner’s doubts about the deal grew more urgent after a consultant showed him that one of the groundwater monitoring wells on the McCormick and Baxter property was pumping out inordinately hot water, indicating that something unusual was going on chemically with the material under the cap. “I’m no expert, but I certainly didn’t like seeing water 110 degrees underneath a property we could become liable for.”

Pollution from city-owned sewer outfalls contribute to the pollution of the Willamette River.

For all of the challenges and setbacks of the McCormick and Baxter site, public officials still hold it up as evidence that a better future could lie ahead for the harbor. UP, a 100-year-old, 600-employee institution with an annual economic impact of $169 million, has been trying for years to expand without disturbing its neighbors, and its move to the waterfront will eventually create construction jobs, open space and a vibrant new gathering place.

That’s better than stagnation. When the harbor was first targeted by the EPA, key players vowed to avoid the delays and bickering that have turned so many other Superfund cleanups into multi-decade wars of attrition. The port, the city and a dozen key harbor businesses joined to form the Lower Willamette Group and predicted they would have a Record of Decision (ROD) in place by 2006, laying out a clear plan for cleanup. That deadline has come and gone, and the ROD is nowhere near completed because the remedial investigation laying the groundwork for eventual cleanup took much longer and cost much more than was expected. The investigation was supposed to take just a couple of years, but it ended up lasting eight years and costing $75 million. The study is so detailed that the cost of simply printing it out is $3,000. The next step of devising a cleanup plan based on that science is sure to be similarly complex and expensive.



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