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Portland Harbor Superfund

The Environmental Protection Agency released a letter July 2012 threatening to fine the Lower Willamette Group for using "incorrect or misleading information" in a report on the risk people face by eating contaminated Willamette River fish from the Willamette River Superfund Site.

Osprey 250
Photo by Scott Carpenter

Update: See attached for comments from the Audubon Society of Portland regarding the Portland Harbor Superfund Clean-up Plan. 

These comments were submitted to the EPA on September 6, 2016. Portland Audubon believes that the proposed plan released by the EPA for public comment is inadequate to protect public health and the environment. We are also deeply concerned that calls from many government officials to reach a final record of decision by the end of 2016, a timeline that is highly unrealistic, has tacitly pressured the EPA to prioritize completing the plan by an arbitrary deadline rather than adequately addressing legitimate concerns that have been raised by the community regarding the efficacy of this plan. Portland Audubon will continue remain engaged in future phases of the clean-up process.

Our Once in Lifetime Opportunity to clean-up the Willamette River for People and Wildlife

On June 8, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft cleanup plan of the 2000+ acre Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The plan leaves the vast majority of the river contaminated for generations to come. It is critical that the public weigh in and let the EPA know that we want OUR River restored to health for people and wildlife and we want polluters held accountable. The public had 90 days to submit comments. 

What is the Portland Harbor Superfund Site?
The Superfund designation is reserved for the most contaminated and complicated sites in the country. A 2000+ acre, ten mile long area of the Willamette River extending from near the Broadway Bridge almost to the confluence with the Columbia River was designated as a Federal Superfund Site in 2000. The site is contaminated with 29 compounds that pose a risk to human health and 89 compounds that pose a risk to ecological health. These include PCBs, DDT, PAHs, lead, arsenic, mercury and heavy metals. More than 140 entities including businesses and public agencies such as the U.S. Military, Port of Portland and City of Portland have been identified as responsible for this pollution. Because of the size and complexity of this site, it has taken nearly 16 years to develop a cleanup plan. However, after nearly 16 years of behind the scenes discussions between the EPA and polluters, it is finally time for the public to weigh in. See a map of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site

Why should we care?
A toxic river is bad for our environment, our communities and our economy. Our river is so contaminated that the Oregon Health Authority has issued advisories stating that a healthy adult should eat no more than 8 oz of resident fish per month (a piece about the size of a deck of cards) and no amount of fish is considered safe for pregnant or nursing women. The contamination limits recreational access to the river and use of existing industrial lands driving industry to seek undeveloped natural areas for industrial development. Finally, the contamination has direct impacts on local wildlife such as fish, Bald Eagles, Osprey and otters including impacts on survival, reproduction and development.

Who is responsible for cleaning up the river?
Superfund is a “polluter pays” law. The entities that polluted the river as well as subsequent purchasers of contaminated properties are responsible for paying to clean-up our river and mitigatefor negative environmental impacts. The vast majority of the costs will be paid for by the private industries (or their insurance companies) that contaminated the river. Some costs will be borne by the public either because a polluter no longer exists or because a public agency is responsible for some of the pollution. Companies responsible for the pollution have used public costs as a scare tactic, arguing that many of the polluters no longer exist. In fact, the vast majority of the companies are still in business or subsequent property owners have inherited the liability. Click here to see a full list of responsible parties.

How will the cleanup will help our economy? 
Some polluters have suggested that contamination should be left in the river because cleanup costs might harm industrial interests. These are businesses that have profited for decades at the expense of the health of our river and our communities. They include some of the biggest businesses in Oregon such as Schnitzer Steel, NW Natural and Gunderson, and some of the biggest businesses in the world, such as ExxonMobile, Shell Oil and General Electric. EcoNothwest did a study that determined that every dollar spent on the clean-up of Portland Harbor will generate more than a dollar of economic activity. Cleaning-up the harbor will also allow for contaminated lands to be put back into productive use and to lift the specter of liability over future business investors in Portland Harbor.

What kinds of strategies will be used to clean-up the River?
There are several strategies that will be used to clean-up the 2,000 acre Willamette River Superfund Site. The most effective and certain strategy is dredging and removal of contaminated sediments which are then taken to appropriate landfills. However, the cleanup plan also proposes using capping (in which contaminants are covered with a layer of clean substrate, confined disposal facilities (in water disposal dumps) and monitored natural recovery (MNR) (a fancy way of saying “do nothing” and wait for the river to either cover the contamination or flush it further down river. Unfortunately, the draft plan relies very heavily in MNR leaving upwards of 90% of the site contaminated.

Why has this process taken so long?
Portland Harbor is one of the largest and most complex Superfund Sites in the country. Also parties responsible for the pollution have repeatedly produced substandard, misleading and inaccurate required materials and reports that have significantly delayed this effort.


August 10, 2013: On August 10th Audubon and others testified before the Port of Portland Commission regarding the proposed Superfund Clean-up Plan. Read Bob Sallinger's testimony here.

April 16, 2013: The Lower Willamette Group gets hit with a $125,500 fine by the EPA for downplaying the risks of toxic contamination to people in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. Learn more.

July 2012: The Environmental Protection Agency released a letter July 2012 threatening to fine the Lower Willamette Group for using "incorrect or misleading information" in a report on the risk people face by eating contaminated Willamette River fish from the Willamette River Superfund Site. Read the letter.

Audubon Society of Portland Comments and Letters:

June 6, 2016: Audubon letter to EPA requesting longer comment period

October 9, 2015: Portland Harbor Advisory Group Letter to Remedy Review Board (see attached)

July 27, 2012: Oregonian OpEd by Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland, and Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper, "Willamette Superfund site cleanup would benefit all who love the river."Read the column

Oct. 8, 2012: Portland Audubon comments on Superfund Natural Resource Damage Assessment DEIS.

Important Links:

The EPA's Portland Harbor Superfund Page: (EPA is the federal agency with primary responsibility for overseeing the clean-up of Portland Harbor) 

The DEQ's Portland Harbor Superfund Page: (DEQ is the state agency with responsibly to make sure that polluters are controlling upland sources of pollution into the Willamette River) 

The Natural Resources Damage Assessment's (NRDA) page: The NRDA is a separate process from the Superfund Clean-up Process. The NRDA process focuses on requiring polluters to mitigate for damage to the wildlife and the environment caused by the pollution whereas the clean-up process overseen by the EPA focuses on removal or containment of the actual contaminants.

Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group Page: The PHCAG is a citizen advisory group to the Superfund Process. Audubon serves on the PHCAG).

Portland Harbor Community Coalition Page: The PHCC is a coalition of community groups focused on equity and environmental justice issues associated with the Superfund Clean-up Process. Audubon is a member of the PHCC.

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