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Port Slip Studied for Toxic Dump

by Alex Pulaski and Julie Sullivan
The Oregonian, June 8, 2005

Terminal site could take sediment from cleanup jobs

Once a busy call for grain-laden barges, slip 1 at the Port of Portland's Terminal 4 may become a toxic sediment dump.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began seeking public comment this week on four alternatives to remove sediment tainted by pesticides, chemicals and heavy metals in and around the Willamette River terminal. The EPA is overseeing the Port's Terminal 4 cleanup under the Superfund program.

The preferred alternative that has emerged in negotiations with the EPA involves constructing an earthen berm to close off slip 1, then filling it with nearly 700,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. Clean fill would be placed on top, then probably asphalt.

The result would look like a parking lot. A monitoring well would be stationed in the earthen berm to ensure that contaminants do not pass through it to the river.

The Port and EPA say the facility should not pose a risk of further contaminating the river, but some community members believe otherwise.

Both agencies suggest that disposing of sediment at Terminal 4 best meets the federal agency's criteria of effectiveness, implementability and cost. Contaminants already in slip 1 would not have to be removed because more toxic sediment will be layered above.

A Port consultant has concluded that the disposal option would cost $30.6 million to build.

The figure was higher than the $23 million to $26 million estimated for alternatives of capping contaminants in some areas of the terminal and dredging and transporting sediments elsewhere in others. But because the newly constructed facility would have capacity to accept roughly 560,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from outside the terminal, the consultant estimated that the Port's bottom-line cost would be $20.6 million.

The savings would come from the Port avoiding disposal costs or charging others to dispose of their contaminated sediment. The Port is one of dozens of industrial polluters in a six-mile stretch of river known as Portland harbor.

Oldest operating

Terminal 4 is the Port's oldest operating marine terminal. Its uses have ranged from loading and unloading grain, petroleum products, pencil pitch, fertilizer, soda ash and agricultural products. Slip 1's use, however, has decreased dramatically in recent years.

The Port of Portland tried burying contaminated sediments in a Willamette River site once before, in a costly exercise that prompted the state to tighten its regulations after the toxic fill was accidentally released.

Between 1992 and 1998, the Port paid Ross Island Sand & Gravel Co. nearly $1 million to bury more than 160,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from maintenance dredging. The material was buried in five large holes in the Ross Island lagoon and capped with several feet of clean silt and sand.

Then, in 1998, a barge spilled contaminated silt outside the storage area. In a second incident, a Ross Island Sand & Gravel dredge operator inadvertently breached one of the storage cells. The breach uncovered thousands of cubic yards of material tainted with lead, mercury, tars, PCBs and tributylin. Ross Island later sued the Port, claiming that port officials withheld information about the sediment's toxicity. The company dropped the claim in a settlement reached in U.S. District Court.

The Port spent $1.2 million on a study that concluded that despite the breach, the cells have held and pose no health risks to wildlife or people. The study also concluded that such burial sites must be closely monitored.

Cheryl Koshuta, the Port's director of environmental affairs, said the facility being proposed at Terminal 4 differs significantly from how sediment was buried at Ross Island. Instead of being disposed of in-water, she said, the sediments at Terminal 4 would be separated from the river by the berm, and covered with layers of fill material.

Although science has not resolved the safest method for removing contaminated sediment -- or even precisely what effects the toxics have on fish and other wildlife -- confined disposal near waterways has emerged as a common, relatively low-cost and effective technique.

For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has constructed or operated more than 40 such facilities in the Great Lakes region, containing 90 million cubic yards of contaminants over the past four decades.

An April 2003 study by the EPA and corps concluded that the facilities had retained more than 99.9 percent of the contaminated dredge material they had received.

Disposal area in Tacoma

Sean Sheldrake, the EPA's project manager for early action at Portland harbor, said the agency had successfully overseen construction of three such disposal areas for contaminated sediment dredged from Tacoma-area Superfund sites.

He said critical issues in establishing a disposal area at Terminal 4 are proper design and sediment acceptance standards.

"With the right criteria, this should not be in any way a threat to the river," Sheldrake said.

For example, he said, tar wastes contained in Northwest Natural Gas Co.'s nearby property would not be appropriate for disposal at Terminal 4. The reason is that cancer-causing benzene in the tar can easily leach into ground water.

A tar body sitting in the Willamette at the NW Natural site could be removed as early as this summer under a plan that, like the Terminal 4 cleanup, is open for public comment.

Jane Harris, executive director of the Oregon Center for Environmental Health and a member of an advisory group overseeing Portland harbor, said she has grave concerns about burying sediments next to the Willamette because of maintenance costs and the potential release of contaminants by flooding or earthquakes. Instead, she said, the sediment should be transported to an inland landfill.

"What is being proposed is not a cleanup, but a cover-up of the problem, leaving a toxic legacy for the next generation," she said.

Alex Pulaski and Julie Sullivan
Port Slip Studied for Toxic Dump
The Oregonian, June 8, 2005

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