In any good monster movie, the initial terror comes from knowing there’s something awful out there—even though you don’t get a good look at it.
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.
The 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 down there.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
“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.