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The Portland Harbor Superfund Site

Portland Harbor is the common name for the highly industrialized section of the Willamette River that stretches from roughly the Broadway Bridge to Sauvie Island, all in the first 12 miles of the Willamette River. This section of river has been highly manipulated over the past 150 years, from early efforts to control and change the channel, to the brunt of industrial development. As a result of industry and other urban development, in December of 2000 this area was designated a Federal Superfund Site under the Comprehensive Environmental Remediation Cleanup, Liability Act (CERCLA). Today the area under study and planning for the cleanup of contaminated river sediments is roughly ten miles.

There are a variety of pollutants in Portland Harbor, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), metals (cadmium, lead, zinc), dioxins, furans, DDT, arsenic, mercury, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Some of these are also found in riverside “upland” areas.

Most of these pollutants are byproducts of past industrial activities. A good example of this are PCBs, which now comprise one of the most widespread pollutants found in the river, and were used widely decades ago. Unfortunately, once released into the environment, many pollutants like PCBs take decades to breakdown—thus remaining in the system with the potential to harm the health of fish and wildlife, and people. These pollutants may react together in the environment to create even more toxic compounds.

Why Should You Care? Any person should care about cleaning up Portland Harbor because of the impact to both wildlife, and people. There are very real potential negative affects on human health from the consumption of fish that contain PCBs. Some of this risk is driven by bioaccumulation—as small creatures that fish consume receive pollution in their bodies from contaminated river sediment, and when the fish consume them, they can gain even greater levels of the same pollution in their bodies. This pollution can then transfer to people who consume the fish.

Ridding the Willamette of PCBs and Other Pollution is a Public Right! Having a Clean and Healthy River is a basic human right—part of the Public Trust that holds that our rivers are held in common, and belong to all. Whether only a relative few people fish in an area that is now polluted matters little—the point is creating a river that is clean enough to allow fishing and recreation to thrive and grow, in addition to thriving businesses in the area. If a river is clean and healthy, more people will use it! Having a clean and healthy Willamette, free of contamination, and thriving businesses can both be a reality along the river in this area.

The clean up of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site involves the following steps, with step one that began over ten years ago:

  • Remedial Investigation — identify the extent and type of contamination. (completed)

  • Feasibility Study — evaluation of proposed clean up options. (issued in March 2012)

  • Remedial Design & Action — design technical options for cleanup.

  • Record of Decision — develop and implement a course of action.

As noted above, the Feasibility Study was released in late March, 2012. This is a very critical piece of the overall cleanup process, and will begin a discussion about the best methodologies to remove pollution from the Willamette River.

Who Oversees This Process? The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has oversight of the entire cleanup and is the Agency that is taking the lead with the in-river portion of the Cleanup, while the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is responsible for overseeing control of pollution and cleanup on the upland sites.


Clean River: Superfund photo collage

Who is Responsible for the Cleanup? The entities that had something to do with polluting the area are those who are responsible for cleaning it up. Superfund law implements the “Polluter Pays” principle. Those responsible are identified, under Superfund law, as Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP). Today this area has over 100 Potentially Responsible Parties. The PRPs include many companies, both large and small, that either were in business back with the pollution occurred, or purchased land that was polluted and inherited the liability.

The main entity that the U.S. EPA is overseeing is called The Lower Willamette Group—an affiliation composed of multiple PRPs (including the Port of Portland, and the City of Portland), who are responsible for meeting the requirements of the Superfund law and paying for the RI/FS process, which began in 2001. Contrary to popular belief that “Superfund” means that the government is arriving to cleanup highly contaminated sites and has money to do so, the law actually requires the PRPs to pay for cleanup, with the EPA using any funds from Superfund, now appropriated by Congress, as a last resort.

NEWS: In recent days, some companies with operations in Portland Harbor have sought to paint the U.S. EPA as being unreasonable, and have spread this message to the Oregon Congressional Delegation, and the media. Willamette Riverkeeper (WR) believes that the US EPA is doing its job at present, and is seeking to uphold the Public Trust. Check the link below for WR’s letter to the EPA on this issue.

Key Links to Learn More:

EPA Portland Harbor website
Map of the Superfund area and PRPs
Portland Harbor–Oregon DEQ site
Community Advisory Group (with our letter to the EPA)
EPA Response to Oregon Congressional Delegation
Draft Remedial Investigation
Oregon DHS Fish Advisory and Related Information

WR’s Role: Since its designation as a Superfund site, Willamette Riverkeeper has worked to evaluate every step in the process to ensure that the cleanup is comprehensive and timely. WR will continue to evaluate technical documents, participate in key meetings, work with the Oregon DEQ and U.S. EPA to ensure that the cleanup process protects the public trust, and will provide opportunities for the Community to learn more via presentations and paddle trips.

Members of the general public can also get involved through the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group which provides input to the EPA on cleanup issues. WR helped to create this group in 2002. This group meets every second Wednesday of the month at the Portland Water Quality Lab in St. Johns.