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Superfund expert says natural recovery won't work to clean up Portland Harbor

Local residents, environmentalists and companies along the Portland waterfront are all raising concerns about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed $746 million plan to clean up a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River.

Many residents, Native American tribes and environmentalists say the EPA isn’t going far enough to remove contaminants in a 10-mile stretch of the river designated in 2000 as a Superfund site. But many businesses on the hook to pay cleanup costs are questioning EPA’s price estimates and assumptions.

Under federal law, EPA must address “unacceptable risk to humans and the environment,” said EPA project manager Kristine Koch, in the first of four public meetings in Portland on the Portland Harbor Superfund project Friday.

But the agency is not obliged to get the river back into pristine condition, which would be highly expensive after decades of being used as an industrial dumping ground.

EPA’s proposed plan focuses on dredging or capping the contaminated sediment in about 11 percent of the Superfund site, Koch said, but that addresses about 85 percent of the risk. Much of that is laden with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, DDT and other toxic and persistent chemicals.

The EPA hopes to rely on “natural recovery” to clean up the rest of the site, spreading six to nine inches of sand in some areas and hoping the sediment will get diluted in coming decades by the natural flow of the Willamette River.

Areas of sediment with the highest concentration of toxics will be removed, said Elizabeth Allen, EPA regional toxicologist. “Most of the contamination that we’re leaving in the river is pretty low-concentration,” she said.

Too much for natural recovery?

But some question whether the river can clean itself through monitored natural recovery.

Peter deFur, an environmental scientist with expertise in Superfund site cleanups, dioxins and PCB toxicity, said there are certain compounds that will break down through natural recovery, but some of the most harmful ones will not. He was the featured speaker at last Tuesday’s public forum on the Superfund cleanup sponsored by the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group.

Metals, DDT, dioxins and PCBs are among the compounds that deFur said cannot be taken care of through natural recovery, and remain a health hazard to humans and the environment.

deFur said metals will never break down; they will always stay the same. Because PCBs have chlorine attached to them, it makes them stable, toxic and resistant to bacterial breakdown, he said. PCBs can break down when they are not in water, but in water they “break down so slowly that they might as well be considered metals,” deFur said.

“There wouldn’t be enough fungus in the world to break down what we’ve got here,” he said.

EPA’s plan suggests that when cleaner sediment from upstream is deposited on and mixed into the contaminated river bottom sediment, the overall concentration of the contaminant in the sediment is reduced. But deFur said that won’t happen, because animals and other living organisms will actually draw the PCBs and other compounds from the contaminated sediment up into the cleaner sediment.

“If natural recovery worked, then why are the PCBs that are buried 5 to 6 feet down still there?” deFur said. “Where’s the recovery?”

It’s unclear how long it will take for monitored natural recovery to do the trick. But a more rigorous cleanup strategy — putting caps of gravel, sand and rocks over contaminated sediment — must be monitored for decades. “We have to maintain those caps as long as the contamination remains in the sediment,” Koch said. “That’s pretty much beyond our lifetimes and on into the future.”

Comments and concerns

The EPA is now getting public comments and hopes to issue its final cleanup plan, known as a Record of Decision, by year’s end. Officials from the city of Portland, among others, have expressed concern that if the plan isn’t finalized by then, it could mean another lengthy delay in getting the river cleaned up. That’s because whoever is elected U.S. president in November could shuffle leadership in the EPA.

Last week, EPA made a concession to critics who wanted more than 60 days to provide public comments on the plan, stretching that to 90 days. But that gives the EPA even less time to digest public comments and issue a final plan by December.

deFur, from the University of Virginia Commonwealth, questioned EPA promises to fully consider the community’s input while meeting its goal of releasing a final plan by year’s end.

“If they do that, it would be record-setting,” deFur said. “It usually takes a year for that process.”

This suggests that EPA has already made up its mind on the plan and is not going to consider the public’s input, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Audubon Society of Portland.

Travis Williams with Willamette Riverkeeper said he would rather the plan not be finalized until 2017 if that meant more time for public comment.

“I’m not all that optimistic that they will make drastic changes, but I think they will consider public comment,” Williams said.

Others are concerned about the price tag in EPA’s proposed plan.

EPA recently tinkered with an earlier plan that was estimated to cost nearly $1.4 billion, and argued its new plan is essentially the same. The price tag came down about $600 million, EPA said, largely due to refined cost estimates.

The Port of Portland agrees not much in the plan has changed, but it’s worried about the reality of the new cost estimate.

“We are concerned that EPA’s costs are overly optimistic, meaning the public is not informed about the true higher anticipated cost of the cleanup or the benefits that different cleanup alternatives would achieve,” said Curtis Robinhold, the Port of Portland deputy executive director, in a news release.

Last Wednesday, seven companies in the Lower Willamette Group, a group of businesses and local governments that stepped up to take the initiative on the Superfund process, issued a formal dispute resolution request to the EPA, saying they disagreed with many of the cost and other assumptions used by EPA in its latest Feasibility Study that accompanied release of the cleanup plan.

In the 29-page letter, the seven companies said EPA had not done enough to rule out other cleanup scenarios that would be less costly.

Barbara Smith, spokeswoman for the Lower Willamette Group, said the businesses are not just all about the cost. They’re also concerned about the “assessment of risk,” she said. They want whatever is going to reduce risk to humans and the environment, and not “unreasonably” interrupt other uses of the river, Smith said.

“They want the cleanup to be commensurate with the risk and they want to do it once,” so they aren’t on the hook for future cleanups, she said.

EPA public information officer Mark MacIntyre declined to discuss the Port’s concerns about the price tag. “We’re technically not debating or answering peoples’ questions outside of the public comment process while the public comment process is under way,” he said.