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Portland Harbor sinks under Superfund stigma

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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.

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.


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