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EPA unveils final cleanup plan for Portland Harbour

Environmental Issues // January 9, 2017

The US Environmental Protection Agency has released its final cleanup plan, called a Record of Decision, for 10 miles of the Lower Willamette River within the Portland Harbor Superfund Site which runs through the economic heart of Portland, Oregon.

EPA’s final plan, or ROD, addresses contaminated sediments through dredging, capping, enhanced natural recovery, and monitored natural recovery, including removal of over three million cubic yards of contaminated sediments.

The ROD also addresses contaminated groundwater that could re-contaminate the river and river banks. Approximately 1,774 acres of the site with lower contaminant levels are expected to recover naturally over time. Active cleanup work at the site is now expected to take as much as 13 years and cost approximately $1 billion.

“This is a very strong cleanup plan, thanks in large part to the quality of the public comments we received,” said Dennis McLerran, the EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. “Under the final plan, we’ll be removing more contaminated sediment sooner, which means risks will be lower and the river will be safer faster. Input from the public, tribes, state and local government, environmental groups and business and industry helped us hone our plan and make it more responsive to people’s concerns. We have been working very closely with Oregon DEQ on the final remedy and with state and EPA leadership. The stage is now set for cleanup work to begin in earnest.”

Last spring, the EPA released a Proposed Plan and received over 5,000 public comments, nearly 90 per cent of which called for more robust cleanup measures than those outlined in the proposal. 

Compared to the Proposed Plan, the final plan:

• Further reduces health risks to people, fish, and wildlife sooner by dredging and/or capping 365 acres of contaminated sediment, 100 acres more than in the Proposed Plan
• Will make it safer for people to eat more resident fish more often and sooner
• Streamlines the process to get more “early action” cleanups underway
• Achieves cleanup goals sooner, providing more certainty for commercial and industrial development
• Provides pathways for reducing costs by following up on comments such as identifying an upland disposal site in closer proximity to Portland Harbor and by updating land use assumptions.

At the end of the active 'construction' phase of cleanup, EPA expects a 100-fold reduction in contamination-related cancer and other serious risks. Natural recovery will further reduce these risks to levels deemed acceptable under Superfund and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) cleanup program. Not all risks will be eliminated.

McLerran’s sentiments were echoed by Jim Woolford, Director of the Office of Superfund and Remediation and Technology Innovation in EPA’s Headquarters Office in Washington DC.

“We’ve seldom had an opportunity to work as closely with our regional counterparts and their state partners as we have on the Portland Harbor cleanup,” said Woolford. “Portland Harbour is a large and complex site. It required extensive coordination with our regional colleagues and all stakeholders to develop a plan that both meets the Portland community’s needs and is consistent with national regulations and policies. I am very proud of the work we’ve done to achieve this important milestone.”

Under a 2001 agreement with ODEQ, EPA manages the cleanup of the in-river cleanup portion of the site and ODEQ is responsible for the upland portion of the site. EPA’s plan will complement ODEQ’s ongoing upland and up river pollution source control work.

Richard Whitman, Interim Director of ODEQ, echoed EPA’s optimistic outlook for the River’s recovery. “After 16 years of thorough study, DEQ agrees that it is time to move forward with the Portland Harbour cleanup. Coontamination in the river poses real, ongoing risks to people’s health so we need to get more cleanup underway faster, especially to protect people who rely on subsistence fishing from Harbor waters.

“A cleaner river will not only protect Oregonians, it will launch a new era for Portland as a river city, one where the lands stretching along the river are revitalized, and companies can invest without the threat of liability - bringing new jobs to our communities. DEQ will continue work with EPA and others in partnership to move the cleanup forward and restore the Willamette waterfront as a lasting legacy for future generations.”

Outside of the cleanup, ODEQ and EPA will partner to convene stakeholders to create a strategy to address toxins within the larger Willamette watershed to protect the substantial investment of time, money, and work in recovering Portland Harbour. This effort could include promoting green infrastructure, forming Pesticide Stewardship Partnerships, encouraging pollution prevention through green chemistry and even local site clean ups. The goal is to reduce upstream and background contaminant loading to the river, which should further reduce contaminants in fish and shellfish.

EPA and the state are looking for parties to step forward to implement cleanup actions as soon as possible after the ROD. EPA may manage the Portland Harbour cleanup by dividing the site into smaller work areas for purposes of design and construction activities. Cleanup sequencing may also consider factors such as potential impacts of upstream work on downstream areas, the potential for resuspension of contaminants during construction, nature and extent of contamination, and integration of the cleanup actions into the overall remedy.

Now that the Record of Decision is issued, EPA will request that the responsible parties begin work to implement it. To help the public better understand the path forward, and as requested by community groups, information sessions are slated for March. Those attending will hear more details about the final cleanup plan and will have an opportunity to ask questions.

McLerran added: “We’re looking forward to working with the State of Oregon and those responsible for the work to get the cleanup underway. We’re hoping those involved with the cleanup will now move forward with the design phase of work. We are committed to our goal: reduce risks to people and the environment, and return the Lower Willamette to the health and vibrancy all Oregonians deserve.

“I would also like to thank Governor Brown for the close working relationship we have developed with the State of Oregon in developing this more protective remedy. The work over the last 18 months to develop a cleanup remedy for Portland Harbor is a model for how the state and federal government can work together to accomplish big things. We have also worked very closely with EPA headquarters to ensure this remedy is the best solution for Oregon while also being consistent with national Superfund policy and precedent.”

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