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With EPA in limbo, work may begin on smaller harbor site, if polluters are found that are willing to step up and pay the costs

COURTESY PORT OF PORTLAND  - The Port of Portland hopes to get an earlier start cleaning up contamination in the Swan Island Lagoon, pictured here. The city of Portland and state of Oregon are seizing the initiative to jump-start the $1 billion Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup, while the Environmental Protection Agency is distracted — or even paralyzed — by a leadership vacuum, threatened staff cuts and a president set on weakening regulations.

City and state officials are talking with the Port of Portland and other "potentially responsible parties" to clean up contamination at a smaller site to get the process rolling, said city Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Bureau of Environmental Services. The EPA must approve such a cleanup project, but won't be orchestrating it, given uncertainties about the agency in Washington, Fish said.

"The fact is that the key players moving forward now are the city of Portland, the state of Oregon, the Port of Portland and any PRPs (potentially responsible parties) that are willing to come to the table," he said. "I think that's the next step."

The entire cleanup is slated to decontaminate 10 miles of the Willamette River north of the Steel Bridge and require at least 13 years. But the EPA was projected to take the next two years to do more scientific studies of the polluted muck on the Willamette River bottom, and then unveil a "design" that lays out precise cleanup strategies and locations.

City and state officials are anxious to launch a smaller project sooner with polluters paying the cleanup tab. "Our view is there may be smaller projects we can start working on ahead of the overall design," Fish said.

Many riverfront landowners are anxious to get the cleanup out of the way, even those who complain the EPA's plan is too expensive, said Jim Robison, vice chair of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, EPA's citizen participation arm for the Superfund project.

That apparently includes the Port of Portland, which issued a stinging critique of the $1 billion price tag after the EPA released its cleanup order, known as its Record of Decision or ROD, on Jan. 6.

"The Port of Portland is talking to lots of different parties, including the city and state, about moving the cleanup forward," confirmed Jessica Hamilton, the port's general manager for harbor environmental work. "Really, the port's goal is to try to move its own cleanup project forward within the framework of the existing ROD," Hamilton said. But, she noted, "For the cleanups to be successful, it will require a lot of parties to step up."

Fish didn't identify any other potentially responsible parties in the talks, aside from NW Natural.

Sites not determined

No sites have been identified, but the Port of Portland previously expressed interest in starting work on areas of the river where it's expected to take a lead role, such as its Terminal 4 and the Swan Island lagoon. Along with other landowners along the river, the port's properties have been under a dark cloud due to the impending Superfund cleanup, making it harder to land tenants and financing for developments.

Mark MacIntyre, EPA regional spokesman in Seattle, declined to comment on the city and state taking the initiative.

"No one wants the Portland Harbor Superfund site cleaned up more than EPA," he said. "That said, we don't discuss or comment on Superfund negotiations until we have a deal or settlement to announce."

The EPA, which runs the Superfund program, is in limbo. It's awaiting a new agency director, who will then appoint a new regional director for the Seattle office. Its staff are anxious about initial signs from President Trump that he wants to ditch regulations and slash EPA staffing.

But the Record of Decision is now in law, Robison said, and would require an act of Congress to undo. Meanwhile, the city, state, or other parties such as the Yakama Nation could sue to uphold the Record of Decision, Robison said.

Polluters in better bargaining position

However, the potentially responsible parties, many of whom have been negotiating behind the scenes about who pays what for the cleanup, clearly feel they have more bargaining clout with the pro-business Trump at the helm.

Yet many of them have been unable to move forward with projects on their land, and they want to get this liability off their balance sheets.

EPA can impose penalties on those companies that don't take care of their cleanup obligations, though how well that gets enforced under Trump is an open question, Fish said.

So far, EPA has no official word on changes afoot spurred by Trump, MacIntyre said.

"We have not heard anything in terms of new direction for Superfund on the enforcement side, on the cleanup side," he said.

Now that the ROD is approved, some of the potentially responsible parties are expected to resist their cleanup obligations, he said. "I think there's going to be a period where we expected to have some litigation," he said. "That's typical in Superfund."

But it took 17 years after the Portland Harbor was declared a Superfund site to get the cleanup plan approved last month, and many residents and government officials are getting impatient.

"Portlanders expect us to begin to move forward," Fish said.

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