Ryan Alexander-Tanner

AS OUR FAIR CITY freaks out about heavy metals that have been clouding the air for decades, Portlanders are about to get a stark reminder of a far older, far filthier issue.

In coming weeks, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is slated to release a hugely important report—16 years in the making—laying out the cleanup the feds will require at the massively polluted Portland Harbor Superfund site.

The Superfund site, you should know, is a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River—roughly extending from the Fremont Bridge to the mouth of the Columbia River—that public and private interests used as a dumping ground for a century or so. It's a complex patchwork of toxicity, containing dozens of nasty compounds and involving more than 150 players who are potentially responsible for cleanup.

And it's all ours!

The omnipresence of the pollution in the heart of the city is, for most, an all-too-familiar fact—so it's understandable that a new threat, like the recent alarming levels of cadmium from Portland glass factories, get most of the attention.

But the City of Portland is hoping you'll turn your gaze riverward in coming weeks. As it braces itself for whatever verdict the EPA has in store, the city's also strategizing about how to respond, and it's asking for help. Earlier this month, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services unveiled a survey Portlanders can take regarding their damaged river.

"It's important to the city that it has feedback about Portlanders' values about the cleanup as the city prepares its comments to EPA," the introduction to the survey reads.

What follows is an interrogation of your feelings on river health. Is a quick cleanup more important than a cheap cleanup? (Total costs could range from $800 million to $2.5 billion.) Do you even give a damn about fish anyway? (Their health is a central point of the debate.)

Not everyone's thrilled with the outreach.

To the environmental groups who've been bird-dogging the river cleanup for the last 16 years, the questions are inappropriate. The Audubon Society of Portland refused to distribute the survey to its members. So did Willamette Riverkeeper.

"Unfortunately, there remains far too much content in this survey that in our opinion is inaccurate, misleading, or confusing," Audubon Conservation Director Bob Sallinger wrote in an email to city officials before the survey was unveiled.

Sallinger thinks that the survey is years late, and promotes a viewpoint he's heard often from businesses and some public officials: That restoring the river too much could be needlessly expensive. He also says the city, as one of the polluters responsible for cleanup, shouldn't be the one communicating your viewpoints to the EPA. You can do it yourself, during a two-month comment period the agency has planned.

"The city's had 16 years to engage people and do these kinds of gimmicks," Sallinger says. "They haven't done a damn thing."

Take the survey or don't, but do pay attention to the river in the weeks ahead. Sixteen years is a long time to wait for a verdict, and this is a huge one.