By Nancy Tannler

The League of Women Voters (LWV) Education Fund and the Citizens Utility Board of Oregon gave a presentation about the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. Four knowledgeable speakers brought the audience up to speed on what is currently happening at the site as the result of more than a century of industrial use along the Willamette River.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Kristine Kock, has worked on the site since 2005 and began the evening’s presentation.

In December of 2000 it was determined that the area of the Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge to the confluence of the Columbia, roughly ten miles and approximately 22,000 acres of river bed, is an extremely toxic environment and presents a health risk to people and animals.

A Superfund site is determined by the EPA Record of Decision. They do this by sampling the water and soil in various locations, assess the risk and figure out how to fix it.

The process requires participation from the state and the local Yakama Nation Tribe since the Superfund site effects an area of their dominion. A Citizen Advisory Group is formed and these groups do the research to come up with a series of plans for site clean up and to hold those responsible accountable for the contamination.

According to Kock, the reason this area is so contaminated is due to the ship building, wood products, chemical manufacturing and metal recycling industries. The EPA has identified 65 contaminants not readily broken down in the ecosystem and the human body.

At the present time, they continue to monitor  the site to see if any natural recovery is taking place.

Rose Longoria, Regional Superfund Projects Coordinator with the Yakama Nation Fisheries spoke about the reason this stretch of the river affects fishermen and other tribes and bands consolidated under the Yakama Nation.

The Treaty of 1855 acknowledged that the Yakama Nation had dominion over the area of Washington and Oregon and this means they have guaranteed rights over the land ceded in this territory even though it is not on the reservation.

The Nation is comprised of nineteen tribes or bands; the Yakima, W’yam, Nez Perce, Siletz, Grande Ronde Palouse, Wenatshapam, Pisquose, Yakama, Klinquit, Oche-Chotes, Kow-was-say-ee, Kah-miltpah, Sk’in-pah, Klikatat, Wish-ham, See-ap-cat, Li-ay-was and Shyiks.

Longoria said that over the years, the Yakama have worked to safeguard those treaty rights. They have been involved in the opposition movement against the West Hayden Island development;  the Hanford nuclear Plant; they protest coal trains and their terminals and they have taken a strong stand on the cleanup of the Superfund site.

The Reservation borders three Superfund sites: Hanford, Lake Roosevelt  and The Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The concerns they have with this stretch of the Willamette River is that it is a natural spawning area for fish that eventually make their way up the Columbia River. The people can be contaminated since fishing is their livelihood and a way of life for the Yakama people and there are repercussions that will only get worse if something isn’t done.

Another lethal effect of the Superfund site for the Yakama afects the ceremonial lamprey hunt held at the falls at Oregon City. Longoria said that the runs are declining rapidly and these lamprey have come from the Pacific Ocean through the toxic industrial environment to get here.

The Willamette River is one of the most industrialized rivers in the country and the competing interests and practices of industries that use the river as their dumping ground have  big political influence, Longoria said.

That is why nothing has been done so far. There are people saying that we should just depend on natural recovery, but that will never happen. Her vote and the vote of the Yakama Nation is to completely clean the river no matter what the cost. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and will help preserve the Yakama Nation’s way of life.

Barbara Smith is the spokesperson for the Lower Willamette Group (LWG). They are a group of twelve local businesses and two public utilities who have been identified as being potentially responsible for the clean up.  (There are hundreds of others businesses too.)

The LWG’s job was to prepare the technical documents required for the EPA to make cleanup decisions. They’ve discovered four main chemical groups that account for the risk to human health and ecological risk. They are PCBs, dioxins/furans, the pesticide DDT and PAHs. Other chemicals present potential risks in localized areas.

The LWG Remedial Investigations Report was filed in 2009, revised in 2011 and the EPA finalized the report in 2015.

Smith said the EPA is presenting different ways to approach the problem of a clean up but they should be achievable.

One idea is to divide the site up into sections and use the most effective clean up method for that section. There is hope that new technology will find a more efficient way to clean up the site rather than dredging and capping – the most recommended methods.

Bob Salinger,  director of Audubon’s regional and national conservation policy initiatives, citizen science and wildlife research initiatives, was the final speaker of the night.

Salinger advocates for the EPA to use the most aggressive means to clean up this site. The evidence is clear that unless we do a mega cleanup while we are a Superfund site we will miss the opportunity and there won’t be a second chance.

The EPA presented seven different cleanup options in the fall that range from A – a “no action” alternative (or “do nothing”) through G (not a “do everything” alternative). Although it is the most aggressive option, G, would leave 64% of the area still contaminated.

At the time, Audubon, Riverkeeper, the CAG and the Yakama all stated that even the most aggressive alternative was not adequate to protect the environment and the community.

The EPA has been studying this for sixteen years, the fate of the Superfund Site will be decided in 2017. Responsible parties will be determined and the EPA will announce the plan for cleanup, which will include containing contaminants in both the sediment in the river and along its shores, as well as natural restoration projects.

Based on the information the EPA has provided recently, it looks like they are going with option E which leaves 84% of the river contaminated.

EPA Superfund Community information and Discussion Sessions will be held Thursday, March 17, 6 – 8 pm at the SE Multicultural Center, 4610 SE Belmont St; Saturday, March 19, 11:30 am – 1:30 pm Matt Dishman Community Center, 77 NE Knott St. and Saturday March 26, 11:30 am – 1:30 pm OMSI, 1945  SE Water Ave.