Comment period for Portland Harbor Superfund site now 90 days

Groups say harbor clean-up plan not enough

PORTLAND, Ore. – The plan to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site on the Willamette River will cost $750 million, the EPA announced.

"EPA estimates that cancer and other serious risks posed by contamination will be greatly reduced – in many places up to 100 times lower than it is now," the agency said in a press release. 

The plan proposes to dredge, cap and monitor toxic sites along 10 miles of the Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge to the Columbia Slough.

More than 1.4 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment will be removed, while 1,900 acres will be monitored while they recover naturally. 

That's about 150 acres of sediment that will be dredged, or less than 10 percent of the polluted area. 

"The plan is pretty underwhelming," said Travis Williams of the Willamette Riverkeeper. "It's like bringing a toothpick to a sword fight." 

Williams said the plan should better remove toxics from the river and provide a safer habitat for the fish, birds and mammals who live there, as well as people who eat fish from the river. 

The Lower Willamette Group, which represents 10 corporations who are responsible for some of the pollution and will have to pay for part of the clean up, commended the EPA's plan. 

"This complex river system can be cleaned up efficiently and within a reasonable time by focusing on areas where contaminant levels present the greatest potential risk to humans, fish and wildlife," the group said in a press release.

The EPA said it's impossible to restore the Willamette to its original condition. 

"You cannot take the river back to pristine levels but we can reduce the risk," said EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran.  

McLerran said the plan is based on the best science and most effective cleanup technologies. It costs less than initial estimates, which would have cost between $1 billion and $3 billion.

The cleanup will take a total of 30 years. Construction will encompass seven years and the subsequent 23 years will be spent monitoring the recovery. 

The plan is not set in stone. The public is allowed to comment for 90 days and the city will submit a response to the EPA. Public meetings will also be held in Portland on June 24, June 29, July 11, and July 20.  

The final EPA plan is expected in December.

Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup plan

Background: EPA says Superfund cleanup proposal to cost less than $1B

The Portland Harbor Superfund site is one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, according to Annie Vonburg, senior program manager at the City of Portland.  

The Portland site is the fourth largest Superfund site in the country in terms of contamination and cleanup cost, according to Jim Woolford of the EPA.  

Superfund sites are some of the most contaminated areas in the United States. The Superfund designation makes cleaning the sites a priority to protect public health and the environment.

Unlike some other Superfund sites, the Portland Harbor site is made up of more than 150 companies who have polluted the Willamette River over the course of a century, mainly on the Northwest waterfront, Swan Island and in St. Johns.

Portland Harbor Map


“The Portland Harbor Superfund site has been contaminated from decades of heavy industrial use,” Vonburg said.

Toxics, including heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) dioxin, and pesticides contaminate the area. It was added to the EPA’s priority list in 2000.

Vonburg explained there are some “hotspots” where the toxics are particularly intense.

The biggest public health threat to people is eating fish such as carp, bass and catfish that live in the site (salmon and steelhead passing through are safe to eat). People will not be able to eat unlimited amounts of fish even after the cleanup is complete, due to high levels of mercury and other pollutants originating from further up the Willamette River and pollution remaining at the Superfund site.

The EPA said after the initial cleanup, people will be able to eat five fish a year. After the EPA meets the final cleanup level, people will be able to eat about 20 fish a year. 

The question of who will pay for the project is unclear. The law says the parties responsible for the pollution have to pay for cleanup, and in this case that includes a litany of companies as well as public entities, including the City of Portland.

If the public is on the hook for some of the costs, Vonburg said Portland residents could see the charges reflected on their taxes, water bill or other public utility bill.

EPA public meeting schedule:

  • ·        June 24, 2016, 11:30am-8pm, City of Portland Building, 1120 SW 5th Ave.
  • ·        June 29, 2016, 11:30am-8pm, EXPO Center, 2060 N Marine Dr.
  • ·        July 11, 2016, 11:30am-8pm, University Place Conference Center, 310 SW Lincoln St.
  • ·        July 20, 2016, 11:30am-8pm, Ambridge Center, 1333 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd

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