Cleaning Up Toxic Contaminants In The Willamette River

The National Remedy Review Board is meeting in Portland this week to consider the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) current strategy to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site.

The 11-mile stretch of the Willamette River was designated a Superfund site in 2000, and the EPA is charged with coming up with a strategy for cleaning it up.  Other nonprofits, community groups, tribes, municipalities and industry groups have already submitted their comments to the review board.

Human and ecological health is at risk from the chemicals that made their way into the river as a byproduct of industry and other human activity.

Barbara Smith, the spokeswoman for the Lower Willamette Group, which is made up of some of the potentially responsible parties — including companies like Northwest Natural and municipalities like the City of Portland. Smith told Think Out Loud that reducing the risks from the pollutants is the main goal of the Superfund cleanup. But she says each cleanup requires a mix of approaches:

"It isn't a one size fits all. And when you have a dynamic river system and an active harbor, like here in Portland, you really have to take into consideration the physical characteristics of the river. And a lot of the research that we've done has gone into determining  what works best where."

Some places, like the McCormick and Baxter site — the first in the harbor to get the Superfund designation — have been cleaned up already.

But much of the other cleanup will not move forward until the EPA comes out with final plan, expected next spring. Contaminants include heavy metals, PCBs, DDT, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from fossil fuels, and phthalates, which can interfere with human hormones. 

The broadly stated options for river cleanup, include: sediment removal (the most expensive option); capping the soil and sediment; and what's called "natural recovery," essentially leaving the river alone, with little to no intervention. 

Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, says what strikes him is how long we've known that toxics are a problem. He points out that Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" — a seminal work documenting the health impacts from toxics in the environment — was published in 1962.

"And here we are, 50 some years later and we're still talking about leaving pollutants in the river, as if the natural river sediments of the Willamette can take care of [them] more than active remediation."

Cami Grandinette oversees Superfund cleanups for the EPA's region 10, which includes the Portland Harbor. She says that leaving contamination in a dynamic river system is not ideal, but cost is a factor for the agency.Grandinetti says the question is how to balance costs with human and environmental health.

"The goal of the Superfund program is a bit beyond reducing risks. There are clear criteria we have to achieve to actually protect human health and the environment. And so there, our goals are based on targets that reduce it to a certain level that we deem to be acceptable."

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