Sometimes public comment pays off.
After thousands of Portlanders provided input over three months this summer, the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed today it's beefed up its long-awaited final plan for cleaning up the toxic and complicated Portland Harbor Superfund site
The EPA's final "Record of Decision"—a largely unbudging roadmap for how the Willamette's badly polluted riverbed will be tidied—includes tweaks that remove roughly 100 more acres (nearly 1 million cubic yards) of the river's toxic sediment than a proposal unveiled in June.
That's a move likely to cheer environmentalists and community groups, who've been banging the drum for dredging far more sediment, and had been pushing the public to weigh in on the EPA's plan.
But the stronger cleanup provisions will find critics in the 150 potential polluters, including the City of Portland and Port of Portland, who will need to split the bill for the cleanup in coming years.
The EPA puts the price tag for its final plan at $1.05 billion, hundreds of millions of dollars more than the weaker plan it unveiled in June (it would have cost between $746 million and $811 million, though those estimates were hardly ironclad).
“This is a very strong cleanup plan, thanks in large part to the quality of the public comments we received,” Dennis McLerran, the EPA’s Seattle-based administrator for the Pacific Northwest, said in a statement.
The details quickly get wonky, but this is an objectively big deal. The federal government, polluters, and community groups have been working toward a plan to clean up the 10-mile Superfund site since it was designated in 2000. And they'd been rushing in recent months to get a final decision in place before the presidential administration changed.
"This may not be the ultimate plan but it's reflective of the agency being responsive to public input," says Travis Williams, executive director of the group Willamette Riverkeeper, which has pushed for muscular cleanup provisions for years. When the EPA released a proposed cleanup strategy seven months ago, Williams criticized it as "weak tea," saying, "they brought a nine-volt battery to a party that needs a big old power cable."
But he was chipper earlier today, though he'd only heard scant details about what the EPA would unveil. "From what we can see it's a much stronger plan," Williams said.
Even so, the EPA's new blueprint leaves the vast majority of the city's complex Superfund site untouched. The nearly 2,200-acre site spans 10 miles of the Willamette, from just south of the Fremont Bridge to roughly the Columbia River. And while the water along that span might not be noxious, much of the riverbed was tainted by a century's worth of unfettered pollution. Nasty materials like PCBs and DDT lurk in the muck, and find their way into native fish species like bass, carp, and catfish.
The EPA will require polluters to take proactive action on a little less than 400 acres of the site—including around 3 million cubic yards of sediment that will be dredged up and additional acres that will be "capped" to ensure fish species don't have access to harmful chemicals. An additional 1,774 acres of the Superfund site, around 82 percent of the total, will be left untouched (the plan is for clean sediment to drift downriver and cover it over time).
In total, the EPA says "construction" of its plan will take 13 years, nearly twice the time-frame of the plan it unveiled in June. At the end of that period, the agency says, it expects "a 100-fold reduction in contamination-related cancer and other serious risks." The river would take well longer than 13 years to achieve the highest possible recovery under the plan.
The EPA also believes the plan will reduce contamination flowing into the Columbia River and Multnomah Channel, and "rely less on institutional controls" such as advisories not to eat contaminated fish.
Those fish are a big sticking point when it comes to this cleanup. Probably the greatest sign of success for improving the Superfund is how quickly the river's resident fish become safe to consume for humans and animals. The EPA has said no amount of fish in the Superfund are currently safe for human consumption, though the state has a more liberal view. Current guidelines from the Oregon Health Authority say that healthy adults should eat an absolute maximum 8 ounces of resident fish from the superfund a month. Kids, women of "childbearing age" and people with certain health problems shouldn't eat any.
Under the cleanup plan it unveiled in June, the EPA said its goal was that people could safely eat a maximum of five fish per year once dredging, capping, and other solutions were implemented, and around 20 resident fish per year two decades after that. It was unclear, in details of the new plan previewed with reporters, whether the more robust cleanup approach will speed up that timeline.
Update, 3:34 pm: In a conference call with reporters this afternoon, state and federal officials said the updated plan will more rapidly improve fish species. After 13 years of in-river construction, the EPA says the public will be able to eat 16 fish per year. Once the river's had time to clean up further, the agency says people will be able to eat upwards of 20 fish per year, though it's placed caveats on those.
Richard Whitman, interim director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, added that he expects the state's recommendations for fish consumption will become more restrictive, though he wouldn't offer specifics.
"My understanding is the two agencies are on the same page at this point," Whitman said.
Expect ire from the entities expected to mop all this up. A persistent criticism of environmentalists' zeal on this issue has been that an increased expense of hundreds of millions won't necessarily lead to meaningfully speedier clean up.
The Port of Portland and City of Portland hadn't released their take on the final plan, prior to its official 2:30 pm release. We'll update if/when they do.
Update, 3:40 pm: Shortly after the EPA formally unveiled its plan, the Port became the first polluter to criticize it. In a release, Deputy Executive Director Curtis Robinhold questioned the EPA's reasoning for mandating more cleanup, and he suggested the agency's cost estimates might be wildly inadequate.
"We estimated the cost of the earlier Proposed Plan would be close to $1.8 billion, nearly double EPA’s estimates at the time," Robinhold said in the statement. "Now with a more aggressive remedy and adding significantly more dredging, EPA’s plan could cost over $2 billion. The cost of implementing EPA’s ROD [record of decision] is staggering."
Federal and state officials, asked by the Mercury to respond, disagreed.
"I would encourage the port and others to review the document carefully before they jump to conclusions," said Whitman, of the state DEQ. "For the port to come out with a statement 30 minutes after the decision comes out, I think, is a little disappointing."
Meanwhile, city officials offered a brief but supportive take.
"The City is committed to a clean river and is prepared to lead in building coalitions and partnerships to get this cleanup done right and done as soon as possible," Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish said in a joint statement. "The time to act is now.”
There are, of course, questions about how the cleanup moves forward, now that the plan has solidified. For instance, the EPA says its plan has some wiggle room. As entities collect more data about pollution on the riverbed, "areas that are anticipated to require remediation may be modified or adjusted," according to a summary of the plan.
In addition, an "allocation process" in which potentially responsible polluters haggle over who should pay for what, will likely extend for a year or more. Governor Kate Brown has proposed $10 million in her next budget for kickstarting that process, according to Whitman.
In a bit of interesting timing, the City of Portland got good news on that front yesterday. Multnomah County Judge Stephen Bushong, ruling on part of a years-long lawsuit over water and sewer spending, found that the city's allowed to spend water ratepayers' money on efforts to clean up the river—a finding that could take some pressure off the city's general fund.
EPA officials aren't ruling out litigation that further elongates that process.
And of course, the inauguration of Donald Trump later this month could introduce further chaos. Environmentalist Williams is cautiously optimistic that the cleanup plan won't raise the hackles of the new president or his pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt.
The DEQ's McLerran told reporters that laying down a decision before a new president takes office—no matter which president—is helpful.
"Once you have a decision in place," he said, "that decision gains momentum."