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Oregon Will Get Money from EPA for Toxic Site

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, October 28, 2003

The McCormick & Baxter land was denied funding
until the governor made a plea to President Bush

After first denying cleanup funds for one of Portland's most dangerous toxic waste sites -- the McCormick & Baxter Creosote Co. -- the federal government has decided to give Oregon $12 million to complete the work.

The money, to be awarded within weeks by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will allow the state to build a cap to contain about 25 acres of highly contaminated sediments on the Willamette River property and prevent them from spreading and poisoning more of the river. It also paves the way for completing restoration in 2005.

McCormick & Baxter, near the University of Portland, was one of a dozen federally designated Superfund sites nationwide that the EPA denied funding in July. But Gov. Ted Kulongoski made a personal appeal to President Bush aboard Air Force One during the president's August visit to Oregon, Kulongoski spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn confirmed Monday.

The governor and the EPA's acting administrator were scheduled to announce the funding today. To expedite cleanup, Oregon will receive a disbursement from the fiscal 2004 budget -- not possible, typically, until July.

Marianne Horinko, the EPA's acting administrator, on Monday said science drove the decision. Delay, she said, would prevent Oregon from carrying out construction during summer months when few endangered salmon and steelhead are present.

Oregon officials said delay also could have greatly expanded total cleanup costs. Studies funded by companies participating in the harborwide Superfund cleanup have shown that river currents can churn up sediments at the McCormick and Baxter site, spreading creosote and toxic metals along the river.

"It's a very unstable site," said Kevin Parrett, project manager for the Department of Environmental Quality. "We still don't fully understand why McCormick & Baxter didn't make EPA's funding cut for fiscal year 2003."

McCormick & Baxter, now bankrupt, operated between 1944 and 1991. The company treated wood with preservatives containing creosote, pentachlorophenol and metals.

The company dumped wastewater directly into the Willamette and spread other wastes on land. DEQ researchers have found dangerous concentrations of chemicals in the soil, groundwater and river sediments adjacent to the plant.

The EPA listed McCormick & Baxter as a Superfund site in 1994, and since then has spent $15 million removing the worst contaminated soils and attempting to isolate polluted groundwater.

Restoration work to date has removed more than 33,000 tons of contaminated soil and 1,950 gallons of contaminated groundwater. Earlier this year, DEQ completed an underground barrier wall to contain polluted groundwater.

Site poses dangers
The site poses dangers to people and wildlife. For instance, crayfish within 1,000 feet of the demolished plant are considered poisonous to eat, and harvesters are warned to keep away.

Kulongoski, before his August meeting with Bush, decided to limit his requests to a single issue: restoring funding for the McCormick & Baxter cleanup.

The governor later said Bush promised to look into the issue, said Glynn, the governor's spokeswoman. Glynn also said the governor is pleased the message was heard.

"This is a site that is in the middle of Portland," she said. "It's about jobs as well as the environment; this is prime riverfront property that at some point can be redeveloped."

The EPA in July said the Portland site did not make the cutoff for funding because it did not pose an immediate threat to human health. Horinko said it became the first in line for fiscal 2004 funding.

The award does not resolve the larger challenge of who should pay for the roughly one-third of Superfund sites where responsible polluters have gone bankrupt or no longer exist.

For years, 80 percent or more of cleanup costs were financed by special taxes on industry. But Congress allowed the tax to expire in 1995. Since then, general taxpayers have covered a growing share of the costs. In 2004, taxpayers will pay about 80 percent.

Conservation groups are lobbying Congress to renew the tax to provide more money for cleanups. There are 1,233 sites in the annual $3 billion Superfund program Congress began in 1980. The Bush administration added eight sites this year.

Oregon recovered about $3 million for the McCormick & Baxter site by selling assets of the bankrupt company and collecting part of the company's insurance payout. The state also stands to collect money from the potential sale of some or all of the property.

A Portland advisory committee has recommended that the nearly 50-acre McCormick & Baxter site become a permanent park.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Oregon Will Get Money from EPA for Toxic Site
The Oregonian, October 28, 2003

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