Brownfields and Toxic Legacies in Portland

By Stephen Quirke

The ongoing controversy over Portland’s air quality provides a snapshot of a longer problem stretching back over a century, and into the future for several centuries.

It’s estimated that there are over 13,000 pieces of abandoned, contaminated land across the state of Oregon. Planners and property owners call them “brownfields” – sites where real or perceived contamination prevents any kind of re-development.

Developers are often unwilling to shoulder the costs of analyzing and cleaning up these sites, leaving communities with a patchwork of empty lots and environmental hazards.

Allowing these sites to remain contaminated creates added pressure to destroy wild areas in order to convert land to commercial or industrial use.

Bob Sallinger has successfully fought the industrial development of West Hayden Island for several years. He says the city needs to clean up and re-develop all brownfields before it can justify any further destruction of wildlife habitat.

The City of Portland has mapped 910 acres of brownfields, and plans to re-develop 60% of them over the next 25 years.

The distribution of new industrial land has been institutionalized through the city’s Economic Opportunities Analysis, which projects population and job growth into the future, and then guesses how many jobs will be supported by various economic sectors.

The analysis then estimates how much land will be needed by those economist sectors so they can provide work for the growing population. Not surprisingly, the results are not terribly accurate.

At the Comprehensive Plan hearing in January 2016, the Port of Portland announced it had “substantially expanded capacity for cargo growth” at its existing facilities without relying on West Hayden Island Development – reversing years of its own testimony.

In response to this revelation, Sallinger has called on the city “to take a hard look at how it assesses industrial land capacity”.

“A dramatic increase in marine cargo capacity is not something that is suddenly discovered looking behind a building or a tree, says Sallinger.“Put simply, the current process for assessing industrial land capacity lacks credibility, reliability, transparency and is rife with conflict of interest.”

Brownfields were first designated by law in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) – the same law that designates National Priority sites for hazardous waste removal, or Superfund Sites.

The Willamette River was designated a Superfund in the year 2000, with 150 parties on or near Portland Harbor sharing liability for polluting the river.

Many of these have been required to perform “early action” clean-up along the harbor to prevent the river from being re-contaminated through rainwater run-off or groundwater contamination.

Similar problems may exist for brownfields throughout the city. Early last month, OPB reported that one Portland family discovered more than 400 tons of lead in their backyard’s soil after their one-year-old daughter was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Old aerial photographs showed the lawn was once home to a series of junk cars – leading the EPA to suggest that the previous renter was cutting up the cars to sell as scrap, and letting the lead filler deposit in the ground.

Brownfields are a subset of the DEQ’s Environmental Cleanup program, aimed broadly at cleaning up sites whose pollutant screening levels show a risk to human and environmental health. These screening levels depend, in part, on “current and reasonably likely future uses of land and water”, which DEQ derives from local planners and their land-use designations.

In general, brownfields are a subset of these contaminated sites whose clean-up is prioritized for re-development. DEQ officials say there is a stigma surrounding brownfields that causes property owners to avoid the term. As a result, they only list sites as brownfields when they have been awarded funds for clean-up.

DEQ has two other suggested pathways for cleaning up contaminated land: voluntary clean-up, (which includes DEQ oversight and technical guidance),and independent clean-up. Both can result in a “No Further Action” letter, which allows a property owner to develop, expand or sell property, without passing unknown liability to a new owner.

Not all of these projects are for industrial use. In 2014, Oregon Food Bank received technical assistance from the Bureau of Environmental Services to evaluate soil at the site of their new community farm on NE 33rd Ave.

The evaluation revealed clean soil, and the Food Bank began planting in the Spring of 2015. The Bureau of Environmental Services says their Brownfield Program has provided financial assistance to over 60 properties in the city.

In 2013, the local metro government convened The Oregon Brownfields Coalition, a diverse group of organizations that includes Associated Oregon Industries, Portland Business Alliance, Portland Audubon Society, Beyond Toxics, Verde, and Groundwork Portland.

The coalition promotes a number of state and local policies to provide technical and financial assistance to deal with land contamination, and says the investment is small compared to the general economic benefits.

Efforts are in motion to guarantee that environmental clean-ups benefits those who need it most. A coalition of organizations called the Portland Harbor Community Coalition is currently advocating for a thorough clean-up of the Willamette River Superfund site. They are demanding the EPA sign Community Benefit Agreements for clean-up work to ensure public money invested in the clean-up is given to people who live in Portland,  particularly communities of color, women, and individuals who have been personally affected by Willamette River pollution.

They want to ensure that any housing built on newly-cleaned waterfront land prioritizes homes for the homeless and does not become luxury housing.

Affordable housing at SE Portland’s Esperanza Court, where the Eastside Portland Air Coalition convened its first meeting in February, was in the Portland Brownfield Program from 2005-2007 due to previous manufacturing, and was contaminated with petroleum and other hazardous materials.

The current site of Tabor Commons on Division St., which hosted Café au Play until last December, was also in the program in 2008 due to its use as a former gas station, which contaminated the site with petroleum-related pollution.

Contaminated soil and underground storage tanks were removed in 2008, and BES now considers the site clean with no further action required.

A Bureau of Planning and Sustainability report says there are 87.6 acres of brownfields in just one section of Portland designated “Main Street communities west of 82nd, an area that includes North, SE, and SW Portland.

According to a 2012 Metro Scoping report, the area between Division and East Burnside contains a high density of reported brownfields – particularly dense moving west toward the waterfront.

The density of brownfields here grows from 20-50 per square mile to about 50-100 per square mile. According to the same report, there is a high density of potential (but currently unclassified) brownfield sites, with many areas in the city showing a density of 20-50 per square mile.

A former auto body shop on SE 33rd and Division was in the Brownfield program in 2012 to deal with petroleum contamination. It is now considered clean. A former dry cleaner on SE 44th and Belmont was in the program from 2009-10, and is slated for mixed-use senior housing in 2016.

Rebecca Wells-Albers of the Oregon DEQ says that while liability for contamination falls to current property owners in Oregon, the state can offer assistance through its Orphan properties program if a current owner can demonstrate an inability to pay for remediation.

At the beginning of June, city officials announced that they received a total of $400,000 in EPA brownfield grants to provide free technical and financial assistance to property owners in East Portland.

As this article goes to print, the DEQ was not available to comment on whether its pollution permitting programs are designed to prevent the creation of new brownfields and other contaminated sites.

The public can access the DEQ’s list of contaminated sites through the Environmental Cleanup Site Information Database (ECSI) on the DEQ’s website

Brownfields and Toxic Legacies in Portland

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