Illustration by Brett Superstar

BIG BUSINESS is trying to muscle the city out of its plans to regulate pollution and environmental damage to the Willamette River.

City council will hold a town hall discussion on a new regulation plan for the North Reach of the Willamette on Wednesday, December 16. The North Reach stretches from the Fremont Bridge to its confluence with the Columbia River, and is the river's most polluted stretch. The city's new river plan would require companies who want to develop on the North Reach to go through a city permitting process and pay a fee toward habitat improvement for wildlife—in addition to existing federal and state permitting.

Now harsh words are being exchanged between key partners in the city's plan—the Audubon Society of Portland, an environmental group, and the Working Waterfront Coalition (WWC), a group of harbor business interests including the Port of Portland and Schnitzer Steel.

"The WWC is trying to gut the plan," says Bob Sallinger, from the Audubon Society. "They're essentially saying that the city should have no role in regulating the river, that it should be done by federal and state agencies. But the city has an obligation and a vested interest in having input and influence over what happens in our river."

Sallinger says the WWC's "full-scale assault on the environmental portion of the plan" is "a grab bag of stock complaints laced with not-so-subtle threats that industrial property owners will eventually look to other ports with lower environmental standards if the river plan is adopted."

Consultants working for Schnitzer Steel—which had revenues of $3.6 billion last year—estimated that a new $20 million dock project would have to pay between $355,000 and $2.85 million more in permitting fees under the city's new plan. It would also take an extra 18 months to get the permits approved, according to the consultants.

The WWC says these delays might discourage development and job growth along the North Reach, and that no new development would mean less permitting fees for the city to do environmental work on the North Reach—a vicious circle.

"We are not trying to gut the plan," says WWC spokesperson Ann Gardner—who also works as a lobbyist for Schnitzer Steel. "That is the opposite of the truth.

"When you look at the increase in time, complexity, and expense, it's a show-stopper for business," Gardner continues. "Are we threatening? Not at all. But this is an excessive burden. We're trying to say this is the reality, and these are the consequences."

Gardner says the WWC's members would prefer to pay a fee equivalent to 1.5 percent of any new construction costs, in exchange for avoiding the city's new regulatory approach. Mayor Sam Adams has had several meetings with the WWC and environmentalists over recent months to try to smooth over the differences of opinion, but both sides are holding firm.

"This is Portland, Oregon, and I'm working to both have a successful working North Reach of the river, but we also have to make more environmental progress than we have," says Adams. "I wanted to have this town hall to air the issue out. There continues to be significant disagreement but I want the public to know that this conversation is going on."