Gateway to Superfund Site
by Steve Law
City of Portland, four companies devise remedies for upstream stretch of 10-mile project
Seventeen years after a heavily contaminated 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River was declared the Portland Harbor Superfund site, a detailed cleanup plan is being drafted for a toxic hot spot at the upstream tip of the site.
The city of Portland is teaming with five private companies to plot precise cleanup remedies for 38 acres on the east side of the river between the Broadway and Fremont bridges, officially dubbed River Mile 11E.
That's the waterfront of the former town of Albina before it was annexed into the city in 1891 and has been used for a range of industrial purposes for more than a century.
River Mile 11E is one of three heavily polluted areas of the Superfund site where there's been forward movement on cleanup projects in the past few months, along with the Port of Portland's Terminal 4 and a site known as Gasco, where NW Natural has long operated.
The River Mile 11E effort isn't the biggest cleanup project, but it has symbolic importance because it's at the beginning of the Superfund site.
"In general, it makes sense to start at the top and work your way down," said Cindy Ryals, water resources program manager for the city Bureau of Environmental Services. It's also "a way for the city to show leadership" as one of more than 150 past polluters on the hook to pay for cleanup costs, Ryals said. Most of those entities, known as potentially responsible parties, have done little since the Superfund site was named.
"I think it's encouraging that this is happening right how, and it will signal to others that this type of movement should happen right now at other sites up and down the river," said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group.
No fund in Superfund
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have money any more to spend on actual Superfund cleanups. Instead, it coaxes select potentially responsible parties to step up and take charge, under EPA supervision.
The federal agency inked a consent order in 2013 with the city and a group of other parties to spearhead work on the River Mile 11E site. That bound the parties to commission and pay for studies to evaluate contamination of the riverbed in that area.
Those studies have determined that the major pollutants in that area are polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. Those were widely used for insulation and other properties by a variety of industries over several decades, and they're very persistent in the environment. There also is dioxin and PAH, among other chemicals, in River Mile 11E, Ryals said.
Last month, six of the parties signed an amendment that makes them responsible for the next phase, including preparing what's called the remedial design. That's a detailed description of what parts of the contaminated river sediment will get dredged and removed, what parts get capped to prevent further contamination, what materials to use for the cap, and what areas where nature will be left to take its course.
The cleanup plan must follow the conditions laid out in the Record of Decision, EPA's cleanup plan for the entire Superfund site issued in January 2017. That plan didn't get down to the level of precise remedies for individual sites.
Others joining the city on the amended consent order Cargill Inc., CBS Corp., DIL Trust, Glacier Northwest Inc., and PacifiCorp.
Several others may ultimately be asked to share costs of the cleanup. Other property owners along the waterfront there include Unkeles Family LLC, Ross Island Sand & Gravel Co., the state of Oregon, Stan Herman, and Sakrete of Pacific Northwest. Ross Island is part of the Pamplin corporate family that also includes the Portland Tribune.
City liability stems from sewers
The city is a potentially responsible party because the Bureau of Environmental Services operated three storm sewer outfall pipes that drain into that section of the river. The pipes are believed to have conveyed chemicals that drained from the streets or other sources, via industrial companies.
Past Superfund projects have determined that municipal sewer companies are liable for cleanups because they provided the means with which chemicals wound up contaminating rivers, said Annie Von Burg, the Bureau of Environmental Services senior program manager for Superfund projects.
The city has 35 outfalls in the entire Portland Harbor Superfund Site, Von Burg said.
Different from sewage overflows
The chemical contamination that's the target of the Superfund cleanup is persistent, and distinct from pollution from untreated sewage that also ends up in the Willamette on particularly rainy periods, when the city storm sewer system is overloaded. Though swimming is not advised during those discharges, that type of pollution is short-term, and quickly flows downstream.
According to historical research compiled by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the first towering grain elevators were built in what was called the Albina docks in the late 1890s. Albina Engine and Machine Works Inc. was established in 1904. It built, repaired and broke shops through 1971, and then into the 1980s as Dillingham Ship Repair.
Ships were built in that stretch of the river for the big military building during World War II, Ryals said. Shipbuilding is believed to be a major source of pollution in the Superfund site and occurred in other areas as well.
It's way too soon to know the ultimate costs to clean up River Mile 11E, or to know which polluters will pay what. That's tied up with the bigger effort to divvy up costs among the polluters for the entire 10-mile stretch of the river, Von Burg said.
The Bureau of Environmental Services collects money from sewer customers on every bill to pay for the city's share of Superfund costs. There currently is $7.5 million available for the Portland Harbor in the Environmental Remediation Fund, Von Burg said.
In the future, entities that stepped up early, including the city, figure to get reimbursed for some of their outlays by other companies who have yet to pay anything for cleanup work.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs