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March 28th, 2012 12:01 am AARON MESH | Cover Story

What the Muck?

The Portland Harbor is a toxic embarrassment. And there’s plenty of blame to go around.

PARTNERSHIP CAPTAIN: “I know some people are going to be skeptical,” says David Harvey of the Portland Harbor Partnership. “What are those critics and skeptics offering in place of our outreach?”
IMAGE: James Rexroad

Doing nothing seems to make no sense—so the obvious choice is to dredge it out, right?

Sure, if you’re not the one paying for it. 

Dredging contaminated river silt means digging it up, hauling it away, and treating it like the hazardous waste it is. (That means they’ll probably bury it in a landfill where the pollution won’t spread.) Or they could dredge the sediments and sink them in holding ponds.  

But there’s a far easier and cheaper solution laid out in the study that you’re likely to hear these companies promote: Why not just bury it in place by pouring lots of rocks and clean silt on top of it?

This is called capping, and it’s been done at other Superfund sites. (So has dredging.) 

Capping is a lot cheaper and faster and more cost-effective. But the pollutants are still in the river.

Odds are the EPA will order a combination of dredging and capping. The big question is, how much of the cheaper method will companies be allowed to use?

So the deciding factor will be based on science, right?

Sure, if you mean political science.

The EPA is already under pressure—thanks to the power and money held by these Portland Harbor companies—to propose a cleanup that will be far more limited than, say, what the Willamette Riverkeeper might want.

In August, a barge owned by Vigor Industrial, one of the companies potentially on the hook, toured the Willamette with some very special guests: Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader.

The tour gave the congressmen—all Democrats—a first-hand look at the harbor from the companies’ point of view.

A few months later, all four signed a letter to the EPA expressing “concerns” that sounded very much like a press release from the harbor companies. (See the EPA’s letter in response here.)

The senators and congressmen kicked it off by reminding the EPA about how the harbor has been “an economic center for Oregon for over a hundred years by providing a regional gateway to global markets, family wage jobs, and tax revenue for our communities.” 

Sure, the river bottom is contaminated, they wrote, but these are tough economic times, and it would be unfortunate if the EPA ordered a cleanup that just didn’t make much of a difference. 

“Has any work been done,” the senators and congressmen wrote, “to establish the point of diminishing returns economically and environmentally for various cleanup strategies?”

Blumenauer tells WW he responded to complaints from “dozens and dozens of businesses and hundreds of people.”

“Anybody who didn’t have some concern over how much it’s going to cost and who’s going to pay for it would be suspect,” Blumenauer says. “These are not esoteric questions. This cleanup has already cost Portlanders hundreds of millions of dollars, and we haven’t started cleaning yet.

“I’m hopeful,” he adds, “that I will live long enough to see some of the river actually cleaned.”

What are these companies—with the clout of our elected officials—really trying to say?

In short, if no one is eating the fish, why have clean fish?

In raising these questions, the senators and congressmen echoed two other reports paid for by some of the companies as leverage against the EPA.

The letter from Wyden, Merkley, Schrader and Blumenauer, in fact, drills down on this very point: Who eats these fish, how many do they eat, and how much risk does doing so pose for people’s health? 

So, the entire fight over cleaning up the Portland Harbor comes down to who is eating how many fish?

Yes—and also by the way in which the Portland Harbor companies frame the debate.

Some have recently formed yet another group, Portland Harbor Partnership, that’s running a sleek, $500,000 campaign aimed at the ethnic groups whose members fish the river.

OUTREACH: The Portland Harbor Partnership’s leaflets (top) and website.
The partnership’s campaign includes giving educational presentations, handing out surveys and creating alliances with organizations that represent many of these ethnic and immigrant groups.

“It’s not a PR ploy,” says Gunderson’s Harvey, who’s running the campaign.

On March 17, Harvey sat in the Portland City Council chambers and told a meeting of the Latino Network that people should not eat too many Portland Harbor fish.

“The problem with the fish,” Harvey told the Latino Network, “is if you eat fish over a long period of time: 30, 40 years. You won’t get sick right away.” (A translator repeated his words in Spanish.)

Some of the partnership’s materials imply there are other things that might be done with all the money that would otherwise be spent cleaning up the harbor. 

“When you think about the Willamette River in the metro area,” one survey asks, “what improvements, new developments or enhancements would you like to see in or along it in the next 10-20 years? (Examples might include things like a park, a downtown beach, better access to the river for boats and kayaks, fishing piers, a community and education center, or redevelopment of vacant land. Be creative! We want to hear your ideas!)”

The partnership has been paying some organizations to help it find people in the community to talk to about the harbor. The Urban League of Portland confirmed to WW that it received a $20,000 contract with the Partnership. The Latino Network said it has a $10,000 contract. And the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization received $12,500.

Kamar Haji-Mohamed, a community services coordinator for IRCO, says the organization has set up forums with Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese, Somali and Tongan groups.

“These communities are not asked for their input much,” she says. “So it’s great for them to feel that they’re part of Portland as well.”

Jeri Williams, a program coordinator with the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, says the Partnership is “trying to buy off” ethnic groups. Williams—no relation to Willamette Riverkeeper Travis Williams—is currently running for Portland City Council against Steve Novick (see "Novick's Harbor Doubts" below). 

“I was shocked to hear that the groups I work with were taking money from these people,” she says. “That was alarming, to think that somebody’s spending a lot of money so they don’t have to spend a lot of money.”

When will the cleanup actually begin? 

Don’t hold your breath—unless you’re willing to hold it until way past 2017.

That’s how long it’ll take before any major cleanup starts, if Portland Harbor follows the same timeline as the Duwamish River Superfund project in Seattle. 

That cleanup is often referenced as a more successful model for Portland to emulate. But it took five years after the first feasibility study for the cleanup to begin.

At that site, one major player, Boeing, took the lion’s share of financial responsibility. The Portland Harbor doesn’t have a single big player with deep pockets.

“This site is so complicated because there are so many potentially liable parties,” Applegate says. “If they insist on fighting the remedy, the cleanup could be delayed and the costs could become extreme. And that’s a failure. Delaying is bad environmentally, it’s bad economically. It’s bad either way.”

Who’s on the Hook?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon consider a range of proposals for cleaning up contaminated sediments in the 11-mile Portland Harbor Superfund site. The EPA has identified more than 130 businesses that may have contributed pollution to the Willamette River. Some companies and agencies with big potential liabilities (see map below) have banded together under two organizations, the Lower Willamette Group and the Portland Harbor Partnership.
SOURCE: Oregon Department of Environmental quality; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Novick’s Harbor Doubts
The city council candidate is pitching a reduced Willamette cleanup.
by Aaron Mesh amesh@wweek.com

IMAGE: novickforportland.org

Of all the positions taken in the wrangling over the Portland Harbor cleanup, none is more surprising than Steve Novick’s.

Novick is best known for his campaign for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2008, losing narrowly to Jeff Merkley.

In that race, Novick in part rode his reputation as an environmental crusader. In the 1990s, he worked as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, making his bones by prosecuting polluters on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He’s now running for City Council and is almost certainly a cinch to win. He also has some sharp opinions about cleaning up the harbor.

Novick says the potential cost of $2 billion to clean up the harbor may not be the best investment. 

Novick says he favors finding out how many people are eating Portland Harbor fish and basing the degree of cleanup on those results.

Last month, Novick told a meeting of the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland advocacy group, that its members should consider asking the EPA for a less intensive cleanup of Portland Harbor in exchange for health clinics and a public heath fund.

“I think public health dollars should be spent as effectively as possible,” he tells WW, adding, “While I’m as green as all get-out, I don’t think at a Superfund site we should assume the most expensive and extensive thing is the best thing to do.”

The most extensive cleanup of the Portland Harbor that Novick seems skeptical about would involve widespread dredging of contaminated sediments.

Ironically, that’s the very thing Novick advocated in the Portland Harbor when he was a Justice Department lawyer nearly 20 years ago.

In 1993, Novick compelled the Port of Portland to sign a consent decree that required it pay a $92,000 penalty for repeatedly spilling coal tar in the Willamette River at Terminal 4.

Novick is so proud of the case, he uses it to introduce himself on his current campaign website.

The decree—which Novick negotiated on behalf of the U.S.—also required the port to dredge contamination out of the river. 

There was virtually no evidence the coal tar sitting at the bottom of Terminal 4 threatened human health.

Yet this lack of evidence is what Novick uses today to question an extensive harbor cleanup.

So how do those positions square?

Novick says he was always skeptical of expensive cleanups. “I would find myself thinking, ‘Were we better off putting up signs rather than spending all that money?’” he says.

Novick’s current stance has won him a few fans: companies in the Portland Harbor that face paying the cleanup bill.

He’s received a $2,000 campaign contribution from Warren Rosenfeld, president of Calbag Metals Co., one of the Portland Harbor companies. 

Novick also got a big check from the Greenbrier Cos., owner of barge- and railcar-maker Gunderson. 

Novick says Greenbrier president and CEO Bill Furman asked him what was the largest contribution he had received so far. Novick said $4,000.

Furman gave him a check for $4,001.

Novick says he has made his views known about the Portland Harbor since he moderated a forum about the harbor in the fall of 2010.

“It’s fair to say they had an indication of my thinking on the issue,” Novick says of his big contributors.

“A year later, they donated.”

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