PORTLAND, Ore. -- Zidell Companies took the first step Monday toward cleaning up 18 acres of prime Portland South Waterfront property contaminated by nearly a century's worth of industrial waste.

Zidell proposes spending $20 million to protect the Willamette River from contamination by wrapping up 16 acres of shoreline about three-quarters of a mile between the Marquam and Ross Island bridges and then arming the river banks with a rock-sand mixture beneficial to salmon habitat restoration.

The so-called Zidell Waterfront Remediation Project will result in long-term beneficial effects for both land and water, according to Zidell Cos. Spokesperson Len Bergstein, by restoring fish and wildlife to the area by sequestering contaminants from the river s banks and bottom.

The city of Portland doesn t think salmon can survive or thrive under the proposal as submitted.

State settlement protects water from pollution

Under a 2006 settlement Zidell Cos. reached with the state, the company must get contamination along its riverfront property to a level the state finds acceptable. It also must keep all of that pollution out of the Willamette.

As written, Zidell proposes keeping out 100 years of metallic waste, asbestos, PCBs and other harmful side effects to major industry with caps and armor. The company thinks it can best prevent an environmental damage by cutting the river bank, capping the shoreline in rubber and cement, and then arming the river with a rock-sand mixture that would cultivate the return of salmon and other native fish species.

Our plan will help ready the property for transition to non-industrial uses, Bergstein said.

A unique chance to get it right

According to Dean Marriott, director of the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, the company has a unique opportunity to restore salmon habitat at the same time that it addresses the contamination issues. Marriott says the mandated cleanup is a chance to give the Willamette River back to residents and wildlife in as near a state of good health as the company first found it a century ago, when it began building war ships and barges that have left this stretch of water a dead zone for fish.

A deal is doable, we re just not quite there yet, Marriott said of the company s permit application.

Bob Sallinger, the director for Portland s Audubon Society chapter, said the proposal would simply continue the river s ruin. He noted other attempts to mitigate contamination the same way that left the Willamette strewn with large chunks of rock here and there but no real river bank.

Still, Sallinger was cautiously hopeful that city leaders could help Zidell grasp the unique opportunity it has to shape the river s future for another 100 years. The company can leave a legacy of responsible stewardship behind, Sallinger said, despite a century of pollution that he said was responsible for making Portland a death zone to salmon.

No one needs to tell Zidell how important the Willamette River is to Portland s economy and overall health, he said.

Zidell will face other stakeholders even if its permit clears DEQ and state land management. The federal government also wants to make sure the Willamette is inhabited by salmon. And the city of Portland will protect its interests where the river is concerned.

Integrated regulation best for river, residents

According to Marriott, Portland wants to bring all of the regulators together state land managers and the DEQ, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration s marine fisheries division and the Army Corps of Engineers, and local regulators, including Marriott s environmental bureau and make sure everyone s requirements get met in a complementary way.

A system of groups working together, he said, would benefit the river and the city as each singular stakeholder intended their rulings to do, he said.

Mariott warned that arming the river bank to keep out the state's minimum contaminant mandate might not satisfy NOAA, which could push for greater protection of salmon habitat with the regulatory power of the Endangered Species Act.

And then there s the city, and taxpayers. Sallinger noted that elsewhere on the river, upstream of Portland, restoration was well underway and salmon were benefiting. But Portland must do its part or all that work is for nothing, he said.

Salmon are coming through Portland whether (Zidell) does this or not. All the work being done upstream will be for not because of our city s degradation ... salmon drift downstream tail-first, following the banks. They need shallow water habitat to rest, forage and escape from predators.

All reasons that Marriott and Salinger hope the shipbuilder will reconsider a piecemeal approach to environmental regulation.

It s a huge lost opportunity if we cannot find a different way forward. The city had significant aspirations for that site to restore the Willamette River bank and create real habitat there. This plan doesn t get us there, said Sallinger.

Can differences be overcome?

Zidell s proposal would plant 200 native trees and some 15,000 native shrubs across 4 acres of land. The plan claims only 2.1 acres of the property currently have growing vegetation.

The property also sits in the center of Portland s redevelopment plans for the waterfront. A new condo development abutts the Zidell property to one side; on the other, OHSU.

TriMet s future light rail out to Milwaukie and beyond and the first mass-transit-only suspension bridge in the nation will dissect the Zidell property, too.

Marriott insists that a gentle slope should run down to the water, with native plants, trees and shrubbery, as the river once was and as it has been restored elsewhere. Marriott added that there was still ample time for an agreement to be reached and that the price difference would not change the objectives or goals that must be reached through this once-in-a-lifetime shot at doing something right.

As submitted, the Army Corps of Engineers and DEQ were expected to accept or reject the proposal within a month or so. It would then enter a period of public comment.

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