Major Milestone Reached on Willamette River Cleanup

When the draft remedial investigation report for the Portland Harbor Superfund site is stacked vertically, it’s nearly three feet high. Packed with maps, charts, and graphs, the report, which was submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by a coalition of businesses and public agencies in October 2009, analyzes more than 1 million data points.

But perhaps the most important result from the report is that it concludes nearly eight years of study of Willamette River sediment, and clears a path forward to actual river cleanup and rehabilitation. Jim McKenna, Lower Willamette program manager for the Port, explained, “We now have the data needed to make meaningful cleanup decisions.”

With that said, actual in-water work is still years away, with several important steps to reach first. McKenna noted, “Right now, EPA is reviewing the site risk assessment and risk characterization.” Risk assessments make conservative estimates of potential risks to human health and the environment. Risk characterizations evaluate risk assessment dataaccording to real-life context. Risk assessments might determine the impacts of someone eating a certain kind of fish 19 times a month over 30 years. A risk characterization asks if that’s a reasonable expectation. “EPA will then make risk management decisions that drive the remedies chosen and where in the harbor they’re applied.”

From the Port’s perspective, moving forward as expediently as possible is ideal. “We want to clean up the river, remove the Superfund stigma, and give people another reason to be proud of how we do things in Portland,” said Bill Wyatt, Port of Portland executive director.

Getting there won’t be easy – or inexpensive. To date, Port costs exceed $66 million, and the Port is just one of more than 100 identified potentially responsible parties. Engaged parties are working to meet the next major milestone: a feasibility study of cleanup measures. The study includes scientific evaluations, like the chemical “fate and transport model,” which looks at how chemicals in the river migrate or settle. And there’s also a larger public discussion of cleanup goals and activities. While EPA is charged with making decisions on cleanup remedies, the agency looks to the public for input on how to balance environmental protectiveness, fiscal responsibility and appropriate methods.

With each milestone reached, we’re closer to the point where expenditures are dedicated to cleanup work, not reports. Meanwhile, numerous other efforts to improve Willamette water quality continue. Wyatt said, “Many Superfund rivers will be more contaminated after they finish cleaning up the pollution than the Willamette is before we even begin cleanup work. While the Willamette has legacy contamination, Portlanders are starting from a good place that can only help us get to a better place.”

The Port was the first entity to sign a cleanup order with the Environmental Protection Agency. At Terminal 4, the Port has completed the first phase of in-water cleanup and removed upland sources of contamination. The second phase of the work – a confined disposal facility to be built in one of the terminal’s slips – is on hold while harborwide remedy decisions are made. A final Record of Decision from EPA, which will precede most cleanup efforts, is not expected until at least 2012.

Cleanup Facts:

  • The cost of the investigation stems from the challenges of studying a complex site spread over 10 miles.
  • Chemical concentrations in sediment are greater deep down, indicating that sources of contamination more likely occurred farther back in the harbor’s history, and that surface sediment quality has improved over time.
  • Contamination includes PCBs and, to a lesser extent, dioxins, PAHs, and DDT.