It lurks in the shadows or just beneath the water’s surface. When the monster finally appears, what’s really scary is not whether someone is going to die, but the gruesome way it’s going to happen.
For the past 12 years, some of the most powerful companies in Oregon have lived in fear of an unspeakable beast at the bottom of the Willamette River, a toxic freak that could figuratively eat them alive.
The monster has shown itself. It looks a lot like a carp.
This fish and other bottom feeders—bass, crappie and bullhead catfish—carry in their flesh the poison from decades of pollution that coats the bottom of the river. And how these fish threaten the health of Oregonians will determine the end game in what has been a long and expensive battle over the city’s industrial legacy.
The Willamette gives Portland its sense of identity: a working waterfront city connected to the wider world by what ships in and out of this river. The postcard views of bridges and barges have helped define Portland as a city that lives in harmony with its environment.
But the river’s belly is also Portland’s great embarrassment. Its sediments are stained with decades of toxic pollution, coating the river bottom with chemicals, metals and tar so potent the U.S. government is demanding it be cleaned up.
The fight over who must pay to do it has raged since before 2000, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared 5.7 miles of the Willamette to be a Superfund site. The EPA later expanded the designated area—and some would say the stigma—to a total of nearly 11 miles, running from about the Fremont Bridge downstream to almost where the river meets the Columbia.
The companies suspected of causing the pollution in Portland Harbor—this stretch of the Willamette where industry hums—have spent more than $96 million determining how polluted the sediments are and if they pose a threat to public health.
Depending on what the EPA decides, the cleanup could run as high as $2.2 billion and take another 30 years.
The reckoning starts Friday, March 30.
That’s when 12 companies, plus the City of Portland and the Port of Portland, will deliver to the EPA a study that offers a number of cleanup options.
In the coming months, you’re going to hear a lot about this study. It’s going to be confusing, controversial and even tedious—but the future of the Willamette is at stake.
WW has sifted through the river muck to help you understand how this really works and why it matters.
We’ve found there are already two competing narratives here: One calls for scrubbing the Portland Harbor clean, and the other calls for a more cost-effective solution, even if that means burying the poison under more mud.
What happens now depends on those scary bottom fish—and exactly how far we’re willing to go to make the monster go away.
How dirty is the river?
The water’s not bad, actually.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says the river is safe to swim in, with one exception: Rain can send sewage out through stormwater pipes into the river, making the Willamette unsafe for a period of time. Portland’s just-completed “Big Pipe” project is supposed to divert almost all sewage away from the river.
But the river bottom is a different story.
The sediment at the bottom of Portland Harbor is a buffet of nasty chemicals: arsenic, mercury, metals, tar and even perchlorate, the main ingredient in rocket fuel. Near the Burlington Northern railroad bridge, for example, two abandoned pesticide plants once leaked deadly chemicals: one, DDT; the other, an herbicide that was used to make Agent Orange.
Most of the worst pollutants ended up in the river during the past 60 years, primarily from shipbuilding, ship-breaking, manufacturing and other industrial work along the Willamette’s banks.
most common poison in the riverbed is also the most dangerous: an
odorless, pale yellow liquid called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
They were widely used as coolants in the building of transformers and
electric motors until Congress banned their production in 1979.
It’s good all that crap is down where it won’t bother anyone, right?
PCB and other chemicals don’t stay put. Tiny creatures that live in the mud (they’re called benthic organisms) eat the chemicals. Then they’re eaten by fish. Migrating fish, such as salmon, cruise through the harbor and don’t nibble too many of these tainted invertebrates.
But the fish that call the harbor home—carp, smallmouth bass, crappie and bullhead—get fat on the toxic meals. The chemicals that stay in their tissue get passed on to people.
A study three years ago found that, in many scenarios, people eating fish from the harbor face cancer risks as much as 100 times higher than the EPA’s guidelines. By far the biggest risk comes from those PCBs that travel from mud to fish to people.
A 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that people at risk from Portland Harbor fish are not just sportsmen but members of immigrant and ethnic groups that traditionally fish for food: African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Eastern Europeans and Native Americans.
Vietnamese and Slavic immigrants use carp to make soup and fish paste. Latino people traditionally catch bass, or tilapia. So do African-Americans.
Almost all of the above in this story is widely agreed upon.
Here’s where it starts to get contentious: No one can say for sure who eats the fish and how much fish they eat.
I don’t eat these cancer fish. Why should I care?
That’s just the attitude that bugs the heck out of the Willamette riverkeeper.
Yes, that is Travis Williams’ official title. The 41-year-old native of Milwaukie is executive director of the environmental nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, and he’s putting pressure on government and businesses to clean up the harbor.
Williams argues the Willamette deserves a clean slate and a safe food chain for the wildlife that depends on it.
And anyone should be free to drop a line in the river without worry that there’s a carcinogenic time bomb wriggling on the hook.
“It’s about fish and wildlife, from the osprey to the bald eagle,” Williams said. “And it’s about the fisherman who is exercising a basic human right—to access a river and its species in a fashion that does not jeopardize his health. This is our one shot to get this right.”
Well, let’s get on with it! Why is it taking so long?
The Willamette is under the control of the federal program known as Superfund, which suggests there’s actually a fund with a super amount of cash in it.
Not anymore. It used to be that the federal government taxed oil and chemical companies to fill up the so-called Superfund, and then went ahead and paid for cleanups upfront. Then the feds would hunt down and sue anyone who contributed to the pollution to reimburse the government.
But the Superfund is broke. Now, before a cleanup can begin, the EPA tries to get polluters to agree who will pay for it, and how much actual cleaning up is needed.
In the case of Portland Harbor, the EPA has identified more than 130 entities that may be financially responsible for cleanup. They include the City of Portland and the Port of Portland, but they’re mostly corporations that did the polluting, or the companies that own the old sites.
Many companies are small or no longer exist. About a dozen companies with the bucks to pay for the cleanup hold sway in the Portland Harbor. They have yet to decide how those costs will be divided.
“I don’t think you’ll
find anybody who thinks it hasn’t gone on too long and cost too much
money,” says Rick Applegate, who managed the Superfund project for the
city for a decade until he resigned last year. “The agreement breaks
So these companies are trying to get away with not cleaning up the river?
Well, nobody’s rushing to volunteer. But at the same time, a lot of companies have stepped up to work on the problem—if only to make sure they have some control over the cleanup.
Eight corporations, plus the port and the city, formed the Lower Willamette Group in 2001. That group has spent at least $96 million studying the river.
And many say they intend to do right by the Willamette.
“We voluntarily signed on,” says David Harvey, environmental director for Gunderson, a barge- and railcar-maker with manufacturing sites along the Willamette’s west banks that are suspected of having contributed to the sediment pollution. “For this stretch of the river, this is the most important thing that’s going to happen in the next 50 years.”
How they define that “thing”—and the story these companies tell—is aimed at keeping their exposure limited.
The Portland Harbor is home to more than 34,000 full-time manufacturing and shipping jobs. And some of these companies say an extensive cleanup threatens those jobs.
A 2009 report paid for by three companies on the hook—Gunderson, Schnitzer Steel and Vigor Industrial, which owns the Cascade General ship-repair site at Swan Island—claims a decade-long cleanup could cost $2.2 billion and 9,000 jobs.
So the study coming out Friday—that will be the plan?
Seven plans, actually.
In 7,800 pages, the Lower Willamette Group’s feasibility study will propose a menu of options, ranging from doing little or nothing to dredging out nearly every hot spot of pollutants and hauling the contaminated sediment away.
The EPA will weigh those options and issue final recommendations. That could take another two years.
“It’s the toolbox for the EPA,” says Barbara Smith, a spokeswoman for the group. The options, she says, range “from doing nothing to very intensive dredging over many, many, many, many years.”