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

Queen of Resilience

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY AMY MILSHTEIN

Astrid Scholz scales up sustainability.


Read more...

Marijuana law ushers in new business age

The Latest
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
062315panelthumbBY KIM MOORE | RESEARCH EDITOR

Oregon’s new marijuana law is expected to lead to a bevy of new business opportunities for the state. And not just for growers. Law firms, HR consultants, energy efficiency companies and many others are expected to benefit from the decriminalization of pot, according to panelists at an Oregon Business breakfast meeting on Tuesday.


Read more...

Eco Zoned

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY HANNAH WALLACE

Travelers have always come to Oregon for its natural beauty. But will the increasing popularity of agritourism, European-style hiking getaways and forest resorts relax Oregon's notoriously strict land-use laws?


Read more...

The ancient fish that stops bullets

The Latest
Friday, May 08, 2015
hagfishthumbBY CHRIS NOBLE | PHOTOS BY JASON E. KAPLAN

Hagfish may not have evolved much over the last 300 million years, but their protein-heavy slime promises advances in super-materials.


Read more...

Nine lives

Linda Baker
Friday, May 22, 2015
0f4f7bfBY LINDA BAKER | EDITOR

Roy Kaufmann always lands on his feet.


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...

Up in the Air

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY ANNIE ELLISON

Portland tech veteran Ben Berry is leaving his post as Portland’s chief technology officer for a full-time role producing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aimed at first responders and the military. Berry’s AirShip Technologies Group is poised to be on the ground floor of an industry that will supply drones to as many as 100,000 police, fire and emergency agencies nationwide. He reveals the plan for takeoff.


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