WHEN FEDERAL REGULATORS announced April 6 that a long-awaited proposal for cleaning up the Willamette River's toxic bed would be unexpectedly delayed by weeks, it made a tight deadline even tighter.
Right now, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is rushing to finish up a plan to restore more than 2,000 acres of contaminated river bottom ["Everyone's Waiting on Instructions for Cleaning up the Willamette," News, March 30]. With a new president headed into office next year, the agency badly wants to get that plan finalized by December 31. So the delay—a proposal isn't expected until the first week of May, at the earliest—means the process will be even more hectic. Enormous records requests filed by industrial polluters don't help.
But it turns out this latest hiccup may also result in an unanticipated positive. After weeks of outcry from groups keeping tabs on the process, the City of Portland has agreed it should do more to educate the public about the cleanup and what's at stake—like potentially billions of dollars and decades of chemically tainted fish.
Specifically, the city has quietly agreed to spend an as-yet unknown amount of money to reach out to marginalized communities who rely on the river more than others. Advocates say those groups have been harmed most by the century-long befouling of the Willamette, but have been cut out of a cleanup process that's lasted more than 15 years.
"The public needs to be aware of the Superfund situation," says Cassie Cohen, who works with the Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC), a collection of 12 groups that work with a range of communities in the city (homeless people, recent immigrants, tribes, minority groups). "Largely, folks have no clue. It was not a good public process for the city, period."
Last week, the PHCC held a press conference at Portland City Hall, then delivered a letter [PDF] to city council members excoriating what they say has been a botched outreach effort.
"Despite a legal and ethical mandate, the City of Portland has failed to conduct meaningful public engagement with underrepresented groups," the letter read. "Without directly engaging those most impacted, it is unlikely that these groups will benefit from cleanup/redevelopment."
The PHCC isn't the first group to voice concerns. Earlier this year, when the city unveiled a public survey aimed at gauging Portlanders' opinions on river cleanup, organizations like the Audubon Society of Portland and Willamette Riverkeeper refused to even send it to their members. They took issue with language on the survey, and said it was too little, too late.
Like those groups, the PHCC says the city waited until the absolute last minute to engage with Portlanders. They worry that an uninformed public won't show up to demand a strong cleanup plan during a 60-day comment window the EPA is planning. That could give a leg up to the more than 150 polluters, the City of Portland included, that might have to chip in for up to $2.5 billion in cleanup—and who will undoubtedly make their opinions heard.
"I'm pushing the city to do more innovative, creative solutions as opposed to the bare minimum, which is what they've been doing," says Edward Hill, executive director of Groundwork Portland, which looks out for the interests of minorities and low-income Portlanders on environmental issues like the Superfund site.
Hill knows all about communities that rely on Portland's rivers.
Several weeks back, he says, he was discussing Portland's toxic harbor with a staffer at the Asian Family Center in Northeast Portland. The conversation touched on warnings about local fish—state officials say some Portland Harbor species are toxic enough that healthy adults should only eat a maximum of eight ounces a month. Hill also mentioned similar warnings about fishing in the Columbia, which is when the trouble began.
"He had to take a moment and step back," says Hill. "He said, 'We're Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian. All we do is fish... I know 20 people who have refrigerators full of fish.'"
It's not just Southeast Asian immigrants relying on local rivers, Hill and Cohen argue. Other immigrant groups also frequently fish. So do some homeless residents.
But the PHCC says these groups are among the least prepared to stand up and push for robust cleanup of the Portland Harbor, which stretches roughly from the Fremont Bridge to the Columbia River.
The group has the city convinced. Michael Jordan, director of the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, agreed on Monday to spend city Superfund dollars on a last-minute outreach push, aimed at the groups the PHCC represents. Jordan tells the Mercury that plan's still in the works. So is the dollar figure, though he said $50,000 isn't out of the question (the city spends millions a year dealing with the harbor).
"The amount of money is not the issue," Jordan says. "It's what we're going to be doing that's important."
Does he agree with the chorus of advocacy groups taking the city's efforts to task?
"I've been involved in lots of public outreach processes," Jordan says. "I haven't been involved in one yet that wasn't criticized for not being enough."