Oregon Delegation Trying To Scrape Together Funds To Clean Portland Harbor

Source: http://news.opb.org, August 25, 2011
By: April Baer

Oregon’s Congressional delegation wants to finish the job of cleaning up the Portland harbor Superfund sites.

It’s not an easy time to go in search of money – public or private. But the players say a confluence of events has made these sites a problem the region must address now.

The Portland harbor was and is a vital hub for ship building.

Ken Swingle is a dockmaster at Vigor Industrial. The company does shipbuilding and repairs on the Willamette River. Swingle shows off one of the massive cranes that’s made the work possible.

“Crane 15 there can lift 75 long tons – a long ton is 2,240 pounds. Crane 14, which is the next one down, that’s 120 long ton, that’s our big one,” Swingle said.

Shipbuilding and other port industries have been a crucial economic engine for the state. But throughout 120 years of harbor history, hundreds of companies — many of them long-gone — have left behind an array of toxic waste.

In 2000, the harbor was sufficiently polluted that the EPA added them to the list of Superfund sites.

The Portland harborfront’s toxic legacy makes it a proving ground for new methods of cleaning up Superfund sites. One approach that uses clay to cap toxins has proven a model for other clean-up sites to follow.

Lst week a tugboat, packed with elected officials, regulators, and others chugged around the 11-miles of the Portland harbor Superfund sites.

The Superfund site list began in 1980. These are places needing long-term, intensive environmental clean-ups.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who organized the tour, explains that the federal government brokered a revenue stream to kick-start these projects.

“The Superfund tax was imposed to finance the cleanup. It was on the petrochemical industry. In exchange for them paying to clean up after themselves, they got some liability exclusions,” Blumenhauer explained.

The Superfund money was always intended as a secondary option, after pollutors themselves had paid their share.

In 1995 Congress declined to extend the Superfund tax. That left the country with over a thousand sites, and no money to move the clean-ups along.

In spite of that, the EPA has been grinding out vast amounts of information on the harbor sites , with a final report due later this year. Researchers have collected one million data points on the kinds of contamination, how it’s affecting animals, plants, and humans who use the river.

On the harbor tour, Jim Anderson with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality points out a small beach on the river’s east shore — one of several minor clean-ups already completed. He runs through six actions taken over the years to redeem this former lumber treatment business. Poisonous liquids were siphoned off, a barrier wall was sunk 80-feet deep in the river.

“They then re-graded the riverbank, which you can see there, they laid back the slope, re-vegetated it, and put in a sediment cap, about a 22-acre sediment cap that isolates the sediment contamination in the river,” Anderson said.

Congressman Blumenauer and others in the Oregon delegation say they intend to find new federal money to get the harbor clean-up moving. But it’s a difficult time to chisel cash out of Congress.

They say all stakeholders will have to share the burden. Over 80 potentially responsible parties will be asked to pitch in. Legal wrangling is likely.

There’s a lot at stake in this laborious process.

Fish habitat projects upstream will fail if fish can’t survive in the harbor. Port businesses looking to expand have to wait two-or three-times as long for permits. And some Port businesses want to know what the EPA expects of them.

Bill Wyatt is the executive director of the Port of Portland.

“If I were to identify a word, a single word which is the most important in terms of the economic future of the harbor, it’s uncertainty,” Wyatt said.

And the Superfund sites have already been expensive. Wyatt points out 14 stakeholders, including the Port, the city, and local businesses, have already spent $85 million on preliminary work toward the clean-up. The Port’s costs alone for studies, staff time, and lawyers top $65 million.

“We have exhausted virtually all of our insurance settlements to get to this moment. The only thing we have remaining is the revenue we generate from our maritime operations, about $40 million a year,” Wyatt said.

The 14 stakeholders — known as the Lower Willamette Group — will issue final reports by the end of the year on health risks and clean-up options.

Then negotiations can begin over who will pay and how much.

Blumenauer and his colleagues say they will intensify their search for federal money next session.

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