Current Status

The Portland Harbor Superfund site reached a key milestone on January 7, 2017 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released their Record of Decision, the final plan for cleanup. We have been engaged with this process for a long time, and remain committed to a cleanup of the Lower Willamette River that protects the health of Portlanders and our environment, and to finding the most cost-effective way to achieve it.

We are working with EPA, the State of Oregon and others to find a path forward with this Record of Decision. Ultimately we hope to lift the cloud on Portland Harbor to promote new investment and a healthy environment.

You can find current information at EPA’s website.

Why This Matters

Given the issues facing our community now, we must work to ensure the Portland Harbor cleanup gets done effectively and responsibly and in a way that does not burden future generations.

Learn more from the links below about the Portland Harbor Superfund site, the options for cleanup and how the Superfund law works.

Cleanup Completed

Cleanup at 14 locations around the river has already occurred. This is known as Upland Source Control and is overseen by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), helping to ensure contamination doesn’t continue to flow into the river.

DEQ website

Be sure to watch DEQ’s video about upland cleanups too.

The Port has been a leader in “early action” cleanups, with in-water work at Terminal 4 completed before EPA released its final plan for cleanup.

Terminal 4 Sediment cleanup

Working Waterfront

The Portland Harbor is Oregon’s largest seaport.

We conducted a study on the economic impacts of the public and private marine terminals, industrial parks and other commercial and warehousing businesses located along the Lower Willamette in the Portland Harbor. We learned that there are nearly 30,000 jobs directly created by that business, at an average salary of $51,000. A total of $413 million of state and local tax revenue was generated by activity in the Portland Working Harbor.

Economic Impact of Portland’s Working Harbor
The Local and Regional Economic Impacts of Portland Working Harbor, Fiscal Year, 2015

Natural Resources Damages

The Superfund law requires recovery of damages done to natural resources. This is known as Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Learn more about NRDA here:
Natural Resource Recovery fact sheet
Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office

Podcasts One River Many Voices

The Willamette River plays an important role in the environmental, economic, recreational and cultural life of Oregon. Yet the industrial stretch of the river through Portland contains historic pollution that will require a Superfund cleanup. This audio series tells some of the stories of the river, through the voices of those who have historical wisdom, expert knowledge of these complex issues or dreams for the future. Listen for perspectives from scientists, conservationists, individuals who work on the river, Portland residents from adjacent neighborhoods, people who swim, fish and paddle on the river, public agency staff and Native Americans who have depended on the river for generations.

Download or listen to the podcasts
Featured - Episode 1: The State of the River

Featuring James Hiligas-Elting, author of Speaking for the River: Confronting Pollution in Oregon's Willamette Valley, Keith Johnson from Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, and Bill Wyatt from the Port of Portland.

It's easy to take something like a river for granted. We pass by it, and over it, and picnic or hike alongside it. Maybe you kayak or fish. We notice a river, sure. But it's always there, running through our towns and our lives. But how often do we stop to think about just what that river does?

One River, Many Voices is the story of the Willamette River, where it's been, where it's going, and how we'll get there. It's a big, complicated river—with a story to match.

Emerging from several spring systems and tributaries in the Cascade Mountains south of Eugene and running to the Columbia River, the Willamette is an economic engine, an environmental challenge, and a recreational paradise. Kind of a delicate balance, those three. We haven't always managed them well.

This place was pristine when European settlers found it and settlement began in the 1800s. Oregon became a state in 1859, and it was in those next few decades when that a pattern emerged.

"By and large, the mentality of people during those decades was that nature was there to be used, various resources were there to be extracted and used and sold," James Hillegas-Elting, author of the forthcoming book, "Speaking for the River: Confronting Pollution In Oregon's Willamette Valley" tells host Jack McGowan.

Until the middle of the 20th century, 100 percent of effluent from the process that produced paper and pulp was dumped into the Willamette River. The sewage situation wasn't any prettier.

By the 1940s—and Oregon State University has video of this—scientists testing oxygen levels in the water around Portland barely had time to check their clock between setting fish in the river and watching them go belly up. That was then. Today, you see people kayaking, and boating, paddle boarding and swimming downtown. Projects such as the Big Pipe have helped. Your friendly neighborhood bioswale gets an assist. And there's a lot of work left to do.

The Willamette's are generational problems in need of generational solutions. In 2000, areas within the Lower Willamette, in Portland's Working Habor,were designated as a Superfund sites. What that means, who's in charge of the work, how long it will take to tidy up the hundreds of sites on and adjacent to the river—all of those things are discussed in this snapshot of the life of a river that influences our region, and connects our region to the world.

Episode 2: The Story of Superfund

Featuring Todd Bridges from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Barbara Smith from the Lower Willamette Group, Dr. Winston Porter, former Assistant Administrator for the EPA, and Dr. Larry Curtis from Oregon State University.

Broadly explained, the Superfund seems simple enough. It "is the name that has been given to the environmental program that was established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites." So says Todd Bridges, Army senior research scientist for environmental science, talking to Jack McGowan, host of this One River, Many Voices podcast.

But as we learn, the Superfund is anything but simple. Even the basic verbiage is more complicated than it suggests. "This is a Superfund Site," we say, when—as we learned in Episode 1—it's almost always a collection of sites. And each site presents its own challenges, its own contaminants, its own stakeholders.

So where do we start? At the beginning: the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act—CERCLA to its friends. It went into effect in 1980, spurred by toxic discoveries in otherwise lovely sounding locales like Love Canal (New York) and Times Beach (Missouri).

From CERCLA spills the rest of the Superfund's alphabet soup: the EPA, the NPL, and the PRPs. In Portland, the PRP group is the LWG. That's the Lower Willamette Group, a coalition of 14 businesses and other entities (the Potentially Responsible Parties) working on an area stretching from the Columbia Slough to the Broadway Bridge. There are more than a hundred other PRPs not part of the LWG. Let's call it the Portland Harbor Site, and it was added to the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List in 2000. That's how a Superfund site is born.

It's the job of the PRP group to lead an initial investigation into what's contaminating a site, how it got there, and potential impact to people and the environment. They do that working with the EPA, who ultimately decides how things get cleaned up.

"A group only exists for that one function," says Barbara Smith, a spokesperson for the Lower Willamette Group. "Often, people confuse a PRP group … as the group responsible for the actual cleanup."

Nope. That's a different group, one that will form after the current PRP group satisfies its obligations to complete the studies of the river. . Then you have to figure out who's paying for what, and that'd be easy but for the fact that much of the pollution is from those halcyon industrial days when we dumped whatever we wanted in the river because we just didn't know any better. Not all the guilty parties even exist today.

The Superfund is built to deal with these problems, but they aren't easy solutions. How about some good news? "The Willamette is in a much better place than it was 50 years ago," Prof. Larry Curtis says. He's an associate dean at Oregon State University, and the former head of the environmental and molecular toxicology department. He's seen where the river was, and tells us about work that will help get the Willamette to where it's going—and that's the story of the Superfund.

Episode 3: What's in the Mud

Featuring Dr. Larry Curtis from Oregon State University, Mike Palermo, formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center, and Keith Johnson from Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality.

"It's a complicated world, Jack. That's no surprise to you." It could be a Bruce Springsteen lyric, or it could be a meditation on the complexity of river cleanup in an urban environment. It's the latter. Specifically, it's Oregon State professor Larry Curtis talking to One River, Many Voices podcast host Jack McGowan about the impossible task of scrubbing a city river 100-percent clean.

There's diesel exhaust, and zinc off from tires, copper from brake wear. There's fuel residue washed into the river with each good rain. Meanwhile, China burns coal; coal releases pollutants; pollutants rise into the atmosphere and drift around the globe. "We're not going to get everything absolutely crystal clean, pure in the modern world," Curtis tells McGowan.

But we can make it better.

That is the subject of this third episode of One River, Many Voices. Having already charted the history of the Willamette River, and detailed what it means to be a Superfund site, here we get down in the mud. Literally.

McGowan and his guests examine the Willamette's riverbed, the sediment that holds tight to so much of the problem the Superfund was created to fix. For example: DDT. DDT was revolutionary when it began to be widely used post-World War II. Turns out—and maybe this shouldn't have been a surprise, seeing as how it came from research related to chemical warfare—DDT is nasty stuff, and not just for insects.

The EPA banned DDT in 1972, but it's still hanging out because it resists environmental breakdown. "Degradation, we call it," Curtis says. This is especially true down in the muck where there's very little sunlight and oxygen.

DDT is an example of chemical pollution. Want to think about bacteria? Of course you don't, and thanks to the Big Pipe, you don't have to. At least not as often as you once did. With fewer overflow events, there are fewer bacteria issues. Stringent environmental laws, enacted in the 1970s, made releases of contamination from industrial sources far less frequent. . And DEQ has made good progress in getting the sites adjacent to the river, known as upland sites, cleaned up and eliminating them as continuing sources of contamination to the river.

So the river is better than it was, but there's still plenty more to do. The Willamette's pollution levels are lower than other Superfund sites in other parts of the country, but that doesn't mean the problems are less complex.

"We've had to look at an awful lot of properties just to make sure we've got the universe of what might be affecting the river," Keith Johnson, cleanup program manager for Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, says.

The devil, as they say, is in the details. And as we learn in episode three, the details are in the mud.

Episode 4: Working on the Water

Featuring Bill Wyatt and Dan Pippenger from the Port of Portland, Ron Windes and Jeff Powell from Gunderson, and Alan Sprott from Vigor Industrial.

Let's start with a once upon a time: The 1970s. The carpet was shag. The bottoms were belled. The sideburns were, well … the sideburns were pretty much as unkempt as they are these days. But the waterfront was different.

"Today, the difference is there's a lot more recreation, there's more parks, there's more housing, condos along the river," Ron Wines says. He's the production manager for Gunderson, a railcar and barge manufacturing company in the heart of the Superfund site.

As Wines tells One River, Many Voices host Jack McGowan, all that recreation, and all that habitation, those are good things. But Wines remembers when he got to Gunderson in 1976, arriving as a welder-fitter working on railcars about the same time Bill Walton was riding his bike around town. "It was definitely a working harbor," he says.

The Port of Portland—or the Port "at" Portland, as the Port's executive director Bill Wyatt likes to call it—remains a working harbor, but one with many more interests to balance. It's a task we explore in the fourth episode of this series.

Not all roads lead to Portland, but two interstate freeways do. There are two transcontinental railways. Barges arrive from all over the world, though you can reach the world faster from the airport.

Wheat and grain arrive from the Midwest; potash rumbles in from central Canada. Automobiles continue a journey from the other side of the planet. It's a busy place. Take a look at the Port's shipping schedule sometime.

The river is an economic engine responsible for tens of thousands of jobs. "There needs to be a balance between the manufacturing side and the recreation side," Wines says.

The river's Superfund designation weighs on that balance, on the companies that call the Willamette home, and those who might in the future. Investment in new technologies helps Gunderson be more efficient and environmentally sound.

Vigor Industrial, located on Swan Island, benefits from a geography that supports transportation, and the other industries the region supports.

"We make our living repairing ocean-going vessels, and building ocean-going vessels," Alan Sprott, Vigor's vice president of environmental affairs says. "The more trade that occurs out of the Portland Harbor, the better it is. Not just for our business, but for all businesses."

Episode 5: One River, Many Boats

Featuring Stephanie Sherwood, a dragon boater in Portland, Bill Egan from the Bass and Panfish Club, and Will Levenson from The Big Float.

If you spend any time at all in downtown Portland, you've probably seen a dragon boater. They're usually headed toward the Willamette River—rain or shine. Accessories include a life jacket and a paddle. Often they're smiling, which is something, because rowing a dragon boat is exhausting. It must also be a lot of fun, because hundreds do it every year.

Stephanie Sherwood once watched a friend take part in the Rose Festival races, and decided to do a little Googling of her own. As she tells One River, Many Voices host Jack McGowan, it wasn't long until she was on a team. From that team came friendship, adventure, and a new appreciation of her city, one she'd never get from land.

"It's almost surreal how beautiful it is watching an osprey dive into the river," Sherwood says. "… Then, there's nothing like the view of Portland at night from a dragon boat. Nothing."

In the previous episode of this series, we examined industry on the Willamette, and the challenges businesses face as they attempt to balance economic growth and environmental responsibility.

This episode focuses on recreation: the boaters, fisherman, and swimmers. This episode asks a question: "What does it mean to be a green city anyway?" says Will Levenson.

He's the co-owner of Popina Swimwear, and the ringleader of the Human Access Project, a group dedicated to helping Portland fall in love with the Willamette. HAP is behind the Big Float, which puts hundreds of people in inner tubes each summer and sends them downacrossdown riverthe river through Portland, because a leisurely float is easy. Anyone can do it.

HAP's members are, as an original song on the group's website says, proud river huggers. In a region known for tree hugging, you wouldn't think you'd have to encourage people to embrace the river, too, but that's exactly what Levenson discovered when he moved to Portland nearly 20 years ago. He found the river was an afterthought, and when it was considered at all, it was considered a joke.

Maybe, he figured, instead of joking about how polluted the river is, we should do something about it. He should do something about it. That's what it means to be green, right?

But how? The first trick is getting people to see what they're missing, to get them down to the river, to see the osprey, or the city at night. As Levenson says, "The magic happens at the water's edge."

Episode 6: Seven Generations

Featuring Michael Karnosh from the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde.

As we've charted in this series, the story of the Willamette River is complicated. The story of the Willamette River and the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest is complicated, and tragic.

"Historically, it was everything," Michael Karnosh says of the tribes' relationship with the river. Karnosh works for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. He's the ceded lands program manager. Ceded means "to give up." Native Americans were forced to give up far too much for far too long.

In this sixth episode of the One River, Many Voices series, host Jack McGowan talks with Karnosh about all the tribes have been through, and the work they continue to put into improving the river, thereby preserving an important part of their heritage.

When Karnosh says the river was everything to the area's original habitants, he's not exaggerating. "It was a highway," he says. "It was the place where all a person's nourishment, food, and water would come from."

Lewis and Clark arrived in the early 1800s, and the rest of the world followed, opening up trade and bringing disease that ravaged the population. By the middle of the 19th century, treaties were being negotiated. Land was ceded. "In exchange for certain rights and benefits," Karnosh says. "Some of those rights and benefits have to do directly with clean water, clean air, healthy fish, sustainable ecosystems, access to cultural resources, and things of that nature."

By the mid-20th century, ceded land wasn't enough, and so the Western Oregon Termination Act stripped the Western Oregon tribes of recognition, and terminated the relationship between the federal government and Native Americans. "That was just devastating to the tribal people," Karnosh says.

The mid-20th century wasn't that long ago. This isn't, as McGowan says, ancient history.

Today, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde consist of 27 different tribes spanning Western Oregon, Southwest Washington, and Northern California. And they're more than just interested parties when it comes to the future of the Willamette. They're partners with the EPA and DEQ, offering both agencies thoughts on the cleanup process.

"Another role the tribe has is being a trustee in all this restoration that has to happen as compensation for the damage of the past," Karnosh says. Restoration that will allow Native Americans to celebrate the river, and their own heritage, for decades, and centuries to come.

Episode 7: Neighbors of the River, Part 1

Featuring Robin Plance, former member of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, Michael "Chappie" Grice from the Urban League, former Vanport resident Harold Woods, and Sarah Giles, Kelsey Ferrell, and Shelly Searle, from the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University.

It's a nice walk from the coffee shops of St. Johns to Cathedral Park, where the temptation is to sit and watch the world float by on the Willamette River while cars and trucks rumble across the St. Johns Bridge.

St. Johns feels like its own place, separate from the big city just up the river. There are homes dating back to the late-1800s and early-1900s. "Each one's unique," says Robin Plance, a longtime St. Johns resident and a member of the Portland Harbor Coummunity Advisory Group. "The wood would be harvested, floated down the river, brought up from the Willamette right there into St. Johns."

As One River, Many Voices host Jack McGowan explains in the first of a two-part episode exploring how different communities relate with the river, such advisory groups are a federally required part of the Superfund process. Because you can't improve anything if you alienate the very people who are most connected to the problem.

Today, from atop the St. Johns Bridge, one can look up and down the Willamette and take in the full scope of industry and natural beauty—both of which bring people to the neighborhoodSt. Johns.

Harold Woods came to Portland for a job. He was in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Tulsa, Okla. in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Not long after, he arrived in Portland to work in a Swan Island shipyard. He was far from alone. He was one of the 40,000 people (40 percent African American) living in Vanport, where Delta Park currently sits, when the area flooded in 1948. "Houses were floating," he says.

Michael "Chappie" Grice was born in 1948. His father was born in Portland in 1922, and while Grice didn't live in Vanport, he explains how it was part of a long history of housing issues for the city's African American community. That story includes redlining and displacement to make way for Memorial Coliseum, and the highway.

And so as the story of the Willamette River often does, we wind back to a complicated tangle of interests and relationships. With so many stories, so many interested parties, the Portland Harbor Partnership turned to Portland State University's National Policy Consensus Center to help reach out to as many corners of the public as they could.

"It's really a convergence of Portland's history," NPCC project manager Sarah Giles says. Or, as Shelley Searle, one of the graduate students who tackled the project, says, "The river is Portland."

Episode 8: Neighbors of the River, Part 2

Featuring Oleg Kubrakov and Nga-My Vuong from the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

This is the story of immigrants, and like many such stories it begins with upheaval elsewhere. In 1975, following political unrest at home, thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians began fleeing Southeast Asia. Many came to Oregon, which was in no way equipped to support them.

In 1976, a group of immigrants formed the Indochinese Cultural and Service Center. Four years later, another group formed the Southeast Asian Refugee Federation. A few years after that, they joined forces in what would become the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. Today, IRCO employs more than 150 people and can offer assistance in around 80 languages. It's an important resource to a lot of people.

In part two of this two-part One River, Many Voices episode about the Willamette's neighbors, host Jack McGowan talks to members of two of Portland's immigrant communities. Oleg Kubrakov, an IRCO program coordinator, and Nga-My Vuong who also works with IRCO.

She came to the United States in 1975. Vuong came to Portland seven years ago. She talks about assimilation, about the way younger generations maybe don't speak the native language as well as elders would like. But there is a connection to the past, and it often starts with food. And that includes fish, and fishing. Because she hears often of the Superfund site, she says she's sometimes wary when her husband brings fish home.

"And I don't think that's a concern at all for a lot of the other Vietnamese American fisherman out there," she says. "They don't even realize there's a problem with the river and they're on the river as much as they can be."

Kubrakov, part of of a Slavic community that's among the biggest in the United States, has similar concerns. His community includes Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians—many of whom fled their native countries because of religious persecution or political unrest.

That creates an information snag. The church is the best place to reach people, but the church isn't exactly chummy with government. And so in 2012, when Kubrakov was asked to survey the Slavic community and find out what they knew about the Superfund, what he found wasn't surprising. "I find out that a lot of people did not hear any information about the Superfund," he says.

And when people find out, they have questions—the same questions as so many other Oregonians: How will the cleanup work? How much will it cost? Who will pay? The end goal, as Vuong describes it, is one every citizen can agree on: "If the Superfund site could be as wonderful as all the other places that are here in the Portland area, that would be great."

Episode 9: A Products Path

Featuring Bill Wyatt and Dan Pippenger from the Port of Portland, and Ron Windes from Gunderson.

Why are we here? Like, right here. In this place set scenically between the mountains and the ocean, in a city stretching from the banks of the river running through us.

"I think it's not a terribly well known notion but the reality is our community is here today where it is as a result of the opportunities presented by maritime commerce and the trading nature of our founders," says Bill Wyatt, the Port of Portland's executive director.

As the One River, Many Voices podcast series continues to explore the way the Willamette River powers our region, host Jack McGowan examines the port, where cargo comes and goes by ship, rail, and highway.

"We have two interstate freeways, two transcontinental railroads and we have an international navigation channel all focused right here in Portland," Wyatt says.

The story starts in 1865 when the city of Portland dropped $42,000 in gold coins to purchase dredging equipment. Five years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut a 17-foot channel at the mouth of the Willamette. In 1891, the Oregon Legislature created the Port of Portland to dredge the Columbia River Channel to 25 feet.

Today, the ships that navigate up the Columbia to Portland carrying automobiles (or down river loaded with wheat or potash) travel a channel with an authorized depth of 43 feet. And more often it is ships heading out of Portland. "We export more than we import," Wyatt says.

Portland is now the second largest auto import gateway on the U.S. West Coast. The Columbia River is the third largest wheat-exporting center. The Port is also the largest export hub for minerals on the U.S. West Coast.

Predictably, with so many roads, rails, and channels leading to and from the port, industry emerged to take advantage. We met one company, Gunderson, in the fourth episode of the series. If we're tracing the path products take, Gunderson's are a good example.

Gunderson makes rail cars and barges. The rail cars roll out across the country. The barges work up and down the West Coast, north to Alaska, west to Hawaii, and down through the Panama Canal and up into the Gulf of Mexico. From Portland to the world, that's the path.

Episode 10: Three Kinds of Clean

Featuring Keith Johnson from Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, Todd Bridges from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Mike Palermo, formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center.

Let's review: In 2000, a section of the lower Willamette River in and around downtown Portland was designated a Superfund site. As discussed in earlier episodes of this One River, Many Voices series, the idea of a Superfund site is something of a misnomer. It's almost always sites, and it is definitely that when it comes to the Willamette. Some 300 in total, and around 100 that are of immediate concern.

The next step in the Superfund process is what's called the Proposed Plan, where EPA provides its proposal for cleanup and invites public comment. EPA's cleanup decision is called the Record of Decision, a document that lays out the cleanup process. For the Willamette site, the Proposed plan is expected sometime in 2016, with the Record of Decision to follow. These things take time. There are three main approaches to cleanup, and, as is so often the case when talking about the river and its future, that only sounds simple.

"For very large and complex sites, and Portland harbor would fall into that category I think, some combination of those three major approaches is usually the best approach." So says Mike Palermo, who spent 35 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is now a consultant.

In this episode, host Jack McGowan talks with Palermo, Keith Johnson, from Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, and Todd Bridges, the U.S. Army's Corps senior research scientist for environmental sciences, about the options going forward.

The key word, Bridges says, is "protectiveness."

"Is the remedy protective of human health and the environment?" Bridges says. "And there is a lot that goes into answering that question."

Rarely is one solution is the answer. For one area, dredging, the process of digging the contaminated sediment out of the river might work. "But then a lot depends on whether that's partial dredging or what I would call full dredging," Palermo says.

At another site, capping might make the most sense. Capping is when you put suitable a protective covering materialclean sediment over top the polluted sediment. "If you can separate animals and plants and humans from the contaminants themselves, then you can reduce exposure," Bridges says.

The third option is to allow the river to repair itself naturally or sometimes with a human boost in a process called enhanced monitored natural recovery, allowing the river to cleanap the contaminated area itself by depositing sediment from cleaner upstream sources.

Within each option there are other options and new technologies. Within each site, there are challenges. There are between 10 and 12 miles of Superfund site on the Willamette in Portland, and each contaminated area must be considered as part of the whole, and as its own problem.

McGowan likens it to a series of different roads all headed to the same destination—a cleaner, healthy Willamette River.

Episode 11: Fish and Wildlife

Featuring James Hiligas-Elting, author of Speaking for the River: Confronting Pollution in Oregon's Willamette Valley, Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership, Bill Egan from the Bass and Panfish Club, and Travis Williams from Willamette Riverkeeper.

It is hard to interview fish. They refuse to sit still, and if they say anything at all, it's usually just a bubble or three. But when it comes to the future of the Willamette River, and especially the lower Willamette Superfund site, fish qualify as concerned parties. They live there, after all. That's equally true for an array of difficult to quote wildlife in and around the river.

In this episode of the One River, Many Voices series, host Jack McGowan speaks with a quartet of folks happy to speak for the fish, the river otters, the osprey and even the macroinvertebrates dug down in the mud.

Bill Egan grew up in Portland in the 1940s and 1950s. He first fished the Willamette when he was four. As a kid he'd run off and explore since-filled Swan Island areas like Mocks Bottom and Triangle Lake. "And they were just full of fish, and frogs and wildlife," he says. Deer still wandered down from North Portland. Every now and then, a bear would swim across the river and end up in Pier Park.

Today, Egan's a retired foundry worker and a member of the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club. Like so many, Egan has seen progress, but he'd like to see more. "It's something that will hopefully be done before it's left to future generations," he says.

We often end up talking generationally when we talk about the Willamette River. Oregon State has video from the 1940s—when Egan was born—showing fish dipped into the lower Willamette near Portland and dying almost instantly from a lack of oxygen. Decades of runoff, raw sewage, and effluent from pulp and paper mills had destroyed the river.

Call it the unavoidable consequence of progress in the industrial age. Look back to the mid-1800s, before Lewis and Clark led the masses this way. "The river bounced back and forth across the entire valley," says Bobby Cochran, executive director of Willamette Partnership. We harnessed the river, built our lives on each side of it, and made it a sitting target for our mess.

The Willamette Partnership's job is to help figure out how to best, and most effectively, prioritize the money available for restoration. As we've learned time and again, it's a complex process with a great many interested parties.

"We look at the problems we're dealing with today, and it's pretty hard to point at one person and say, 'It's your problem, go fix it,'" Cochran says. It's a problem we've all helped create, and we'll all be needed to help fix it. But there's a better way to think of the project. Think of everything the river has given us.

"I think we're really on the cusp of helping pay the river back," says Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. "That impact is significant, whether you look at the potential impact on human health with fish consumption, or impact on wildlife itself, and then the habitat piece."

Episode 12: Measuring Costs and Benefits

Featuring Alan Sprott from Vigor Industrial, Travis Williams from Willamette Riverkeeper, and Mike Palermo, formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center.

Vigor Industrial operates a 60-acre shipyard on Swan Island that includes the Vigorous, a 960-foot vessel that constitutes the largest floating dry dock in North America. The Vigorous represents more than $50 million of investment, and so obviously the company believes in its business, and in the lower Willamette River and the future of maritime business.

That doesn't mean the Superfund designation, and the process in which so many are currently engaged, doesn't complicate business. There are costs and benefits and this episode of One River, Many Voices analyzes those. Host Jack McGowan first turns to Alan Sprott, Vigor's vice president of environmental affairs.

"It's a divisive program, very litigious," Sprott says of the Superfund. "It's slow, it's grindingly slow in terms of getting solutions and resolutions."

The 10 to 12 miles of river around Portland that constitutes the Superfund site earned that designation in 2000. The final step before cleanup—the Record of Decision—could occur in the next few years. "That's a decision on the nature of the remedy," says Mike Palermo, who spent 35 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is now a consultant specializing in contaminants, sediments, and remediation.

As we explored in Episode 10 of the series, there are three options for dealing with polluted sediment: dredge, cap, or continue to monitor the river as it naturally heals itself. No one option is best, and all three will likely be employed. Again: complicated.

The unknown next is a business issue, Sprott says. It has undoubtedly scared off investment we'll never know about—companies that poked around, didn't want to be held responsible for decades' old pollution, and went elsewhere.

And for the most part, it's the parties on the river now who are responsible for the cleanup. As Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, explains, there's no actual magic Superfund full of money. That law expired in 1995. Congress allocates funds, but hardly ever enough. And whoever is left standing pays the bill, even for sites that are abandoned.

Williams gets why responsible parties who weren't actually responsible for the original contamination would be upset. He just doesn't agree. "I think it's really no different than if you buy a home with a leaky oil tank," Williams says.

You didn't put that tank in the ground, but it's your job to fix the damage.

"My hope is that a lot of the entities that are going to be footing the bill for this, beyond just the economics, they can look at it as an investment in Portland and the Willamette River," Williams says.

Episode 13: Having a Say

Featuring James Hiligas-Elting, author of Speaking for the River: Confronting Pollution in Oregon's Willamette Valley, Robin Plance, former member of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, Barbara Smith from the Lower Willamette Group, and Sarah Giles, Kelsey Ferrell, and Shelly Searle, from the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University.

Sarah Giles is a project manager at Portland State University's National Policy Consensus Center. Among its jobs, the NPCC "provides resources as a credible, neutral forum to leaders and their communities seeking to address public issues and opportunities."

The Superfund site on the lower Willamette River is both of those things, a public issue and an opportunity, and it's more. "It's really a convergence of Portland's history," Giles tells One River, Many Voices host Jack McGowan.

In the penultimate episode of this series, McGowan explores public involvement, which isn't just helpful. It's required. The site—10 to 12 miles of river and adjacent property around downtown Portland—was designated for Superfund cleanup in 2000 and 2016. Next year should bring the Environmental Protection Agency's Proposed Plan. That's the beginning of the cleanup plan, more or less. It's also the public's opportunity to provide comments to EPA on the plan.

"There are nine criteria that EPA has to prove before they can make a cleanup decision," says Barbara Smith, spokesperson for the Lower Willamette Group. "One of those is public acceptance of the remedy. The EPA can't make a decision without the community's acceptance."

The Lower Willamette Group is a collection of 14 businesses and entities that have agreed to investigate potential solutions. To turn to the public after working for more than a decade wouldn't make any sense. It'd be crazy. So the Lower Willamette Group and the EPA have been working with groups like the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group for almost as long as there's been a Superfund site.

Robin Plance, who lives in North Portland's St. Johns neighborhood, an area as connected to the Willamette as any in the city, is a member of that advisory group, and he's got little patience for people who complain, but don't get involved.

"Go home, kick off your shoes, turn the TV on and grab a six pack of beer and zone out because you don't have a right to complain if you're not going to help bring about the change," Plance says.

There is no magic recipe for fixing the Willamette. There's just a lot of hard work, and with so many interested parties, and with the impact encompassing everyone from picnickers to massive industries, that's a lot of voices. Part of what the NPCC was brought into the process to do is help spread awareness of the issue.

In working on their presentation, the NPCC saw how it inspired questions, good questions.

"And they want to know more, which is exactly what we want from the presentation," Kelsey Ferrell, a member of the PSU team says. "That people begin to think about what they value about the river and the cleanup."

That people get involved.

Episode 14: The Evironmental Protection Agency

Featuring Lori Cohen, Kristine Koch and Alanna Conley, all of U.S. EPA Region 10.

What about the Environmental Protection Agency? We've seen its familiar acronym—EPA—thread throughout this One River, Many Voices series. But we haven't heard from the group charged with overseeing the Superfund process.

What does the EPA have to say about the lower Willamette River, the work to be done, and its work within the sprawling Superfund framework? Depends on the size of the job, right?

"I would say this is a mega site," Lori Cohen, the EPA's associate director of the office of environmental cleanup tells host Jack McGowan.

The Lower Willamette isn't unlike other big sites within EPA Region 10, areas in Washington and Idaho. And like most sites, the work is unavoidable. The idea of simply letting nature fix the problem is a pleasant thought, sure, but it won't work.

"In this case we have some persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals that stay in the environment and they're not going to breakdown on their own," Cohen says.

Which is why the Lower Willamette was designated a Superfund site in 2000, and once that happened, by law, the EPA was on the job. The job is expensive. Cohen says estimates for the cost of cleanup range from as low as $169 million to as high as $1.7 billion.

"In a site like this, where the contamination is comingled, we have what's called joint and several liabilities," says Kristine Koch, lead project manager for the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.

The EPA has identified more than 150 potentially responsible parties—businesses and other entities—that should be picking up that tab.

The Lower Willamette Group represents 14 of those PRPs, and has been working with the EPA to assess the problem and plan a fix. The fix, as we've learned, will really be fixes, a combination of strategies to deal with contaminated sediment and sites that impact life and business in and around the river.

Everyone we've heard from during the course of these podcasts—historians, fishermen, scientists, rowers, Native Americans, immigrants, representatives of businesses and neighborhoods—will have a say in what happens. But the EPA has the final word, and it's the EPA that will check back in on the river for years to come.

"We all have a role in cleaning up our river," Alanna Conley, the EPA's community involvement coordinator for the Portland Harbor, says. "Making it a better place for recreation, for jobs, for fishing, for everyone who lives around the river. We want to make it a better place."

Chris White, Director, Community Affairs - 503.415.6056
Jessica Hamilton, Director, Harbor Environmental - 503.415.6033