Portland Harbor sinks under Superfund stigma

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Articles - January 2010
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
But other once-promising deals have fallen victim to Superfund angst. The port had hoped to work out a deal with a biodiesel company at Terminal 4 north of the St. Johns Bridge, but the company backed out after considering the environmental risk.

The PDC is working to avoid a similar failure at the 25-acre Linnton Plywood site in North Portland. The mill there shut down in 2001 when the market for plywood collapsed, and the worker’s cooperative that owns the property has been trying to sell it for seven years. For the 200 or so members of the co-op, mostly aging retirees, a comfortable retirement depends on the sale of this property. A number of potential buyers have considered investing, most recently Arco/British Petroleum, which operates a neighboring facility and has proposed a LEED-certified expansion onto the Linnton property.

A new investment at Linnton Plywood could bring a big boost to the effort to revitalize the harbor. The property is not nearly as contaminated as many others in the harbor, the seller is motivated and the buyer is proposing ecological restoration and new jobs. But uncertainty has kept the deal on hold, and the deadline is nearing.

“I’m not sure we can save the transaction, but we have to try,” says William Hutchison, a partner at the Roberts Kaplan law firm who represents the co-op. “This is an urgent situation. I worry that if we’re not able to deliver a solution soon, some of the members may not live to get the benefits they are due.”

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International trade, tank farms and heavy industry compete with the public’s desire for greater access to the river.

In her State of the City speech in 2001, then-Mayor Vera Katz introduced an ambitious new program called River Renaissance with the goal of improving both the economy and ecology of the Willamette River. To that end, city planners have been collecting ideas and exploring strategies to restore the river’s ecosystem without infringing on the needs of business. The end result of that effort is a deeply complex River Plan for the North Reach of the Willamette, with a plethora of new maps, charts and recommended policies. The plan offers much for industry, including $586.8 million in transportation infrastructure, but harbor businesses have united to attack it bitterly, saying it would raise costs and kill development. The overwhelmingly negative response from businesses has held up passage of the River Plan.

Part of the plan calls for more than 20 new restoration sites within the harbor for businesses to mitigate for the environmental impacts of new development. Businesses unable to restore their own properties could pay to restore these “mitigation banks.”

Gardner of the Working Waterfront Coalition says new fees and complicated new rules are the last things harbor businesses need in this economy, with the uncertainty of Superfund already slowing development. The coalition presented a letter of protest to the Portland Planning Commission in June, asking, “Why would a company invest in the harbor if permitting and fees are so much more complex and costly than they would be elsewhere? The proposed plan also reduces our ability to compete globally and react quickly to changing market opportunities. The result is lost jobs for the city and the region.”

Environmentalists such as Bob Sallinger, of the Audubon Society of Portland, who joined Gardner on a committee that helped craft the plan, are not sympathetic. “These companies and their shareholders profited from the degradation of the river,” he says. “They have the responsibility to pay for that damage, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The dispute has grown increasingly contentious and resulted in a series of behind-closed doors negotiations between Mayor Adams and industry representatives. Adams says he is committed to finding a solution that works for the business community as well as the environment. “We’ve got a lot of work to do but collectively we are more than up to the task,” he says. “I refuse to accept that it’s either green or it’s good for business. We have proven in Portland that you can accomplish both.”

That may be true in parts of Portland, but it is not yet true in the Portland Harbor Superfund site. It will take decades of fighting, negotiating, encouraging and cajoling to restore the Lower Willamette River and set a course toward a more sustainable future for Portland Harbor. The transition is unlikely to be pleasant and almost certain to be expensive, time consuming and mind-numbingly complex. It is also crucial, to Oregon as well as Portland.

The harbor economy has brought prosperity to the region for 150 years, and it has the potential to do so for another 150 years into the future. But progress will remain sluggish until the river is cleaned up and the stifling weight of Superfund is lifted.

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