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Oregon Tribes Await Superfund Attention for Portland Harbor Site

With a new year under way and the Obama administration officially ensconced in its second term, tribes in Oregon are eager to see what actions the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will take to clean up the largest Superfund site in their state.

Portland Harbor, first listed as a Superfund site in 2000, is situated at the head of the Willamette River; it is that section of the Willamette that flows into the Columbia, about 100 miles before the Columbia enters the Pacific Ocean. The Willamette itself “is the most industrialized tributary of the Columbia River,” said Rose Longoria, Superfund coordinator for Yakama Nation Fisheries.

What that translates into is a toxic stew that includes arsenic, cyanide, heavy metals, petroleum, pesticides, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Spanning 12 miles of the Willamette River from the Columbia Slough to the Steel Bridge, the site runs through the heart of the historic port city.

Catfish, bass, fish-eating birds and other marine animals live in or migrate through the harbor, including several types of salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act and tribal treaties. Migrating salmon passing through it become contaminated as they continue on toward the Pacific. Thousands of people eat fish caught in the harbor each year, making the site a major health issue for tribes.

In addition, Portland Harbor abuts Kelley Point Park, a launch site for ceremonial canoe journeys. Children, elders and their families take canoe journeys, hold ceremonies and gather there throughout the year, following tribal tradition. They collect berries, bark, red willow, shells and other natural resources used in meals, ceremonies and various traditional practices.

As a result, tribes have been seeking cleanup options since long before the harbor received its Superfund designation. The EPA has a memorandum of understanding with tribes who are affected by the pollution to ensure that tribal government representatives have a seat at the table during monthly discussions.

“We make it a priority to come up with an effective process to get input from tribes,” EPA site manager Chip Humphrey told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We get most of our input and perspectives from the tribal government representatives who meet with us regularly, but we try to make ourselves available to community members as well.”

The EPA is currently conducting outreach through tribal governments and the Portland Harbor Community Action Group, Humphrey said. Last year the agency held an information session for the Portland Indian community and has been meeting with leaders of urban Indian organizations.

In addition, for more than 12 years the EPA has worked closely with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) and designated natural resource trustees to formulate a cleanup plan. These include the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and six tribes—the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama, Grand Ronde, Warm Springs and ­Siletz. While the EPA is the lead agency on the water study, ODEQ is charged with ensuring that once the Portland Harbor is cleaned up, it won’t be recontaminated.

More than 80 businesses—operating as well as defunct—and property owners are cited by the EPA as responsible for the river contaminants. Cleanup options range from $169 million to $2 billion and include a mix of dredging, capping, in-place or after-dredging treatments and use of innovative technologies.

However the EPA is under intense pressure from the polluters to choose a less costly cleanup option, even if that is not as effective. The Lower Willamette Group, a consortium of 14 businesses and property owners who are financing the remedial investigation and feasibility reports, submitted its draft study last spring, downplaying the risks of the toxins. In summer 2012 the EPA found the study’s human-health assessment to be lacking. Since then, early cleanups have begun or been completed at a few of the properties included in the Portland Harbor Superfund. These include Arkema, a former pesticide-manufacturing site, and a 35-acre parcel called Triangle Park.

“The Yakama Nation wants a very thorough and effective cleanup—we don’t want it to be shortchanged,” said Longoria.

Now that the EPA has a feasibility study, it is time for community members to get engaged in the process, Humphrey said, with the protection of cultural and ceremonial resources along the river as a top priority.

“We are doing our best to minimize the disturbance, while reducing the health risks to the people using those sites,” he said. “We want to see an aggressive cleanup that gets to the health issues going on.”