Portland’s Quest for Sustainability Needs Help at the Port

by | Jan 3, 2010

More than a century of industrial use has resulted in Willamette River sediments being contaminated with many hazardous substances, such as heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), dioxin/furans, and pesticides. This far-from-green reality led a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette to be classified as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protect Agency in 2000.

This month Oregon Business is running a feature on the Superfund situation. It’s a topic all civic-minded Portlanders need to get up to speed on, because our economic future is tied directly to our willingness and ability to clean up the river and put sustainable practices into place.

As with most things, we need to know our history if we’re going to find a route out of the mess we’re in and refrain from repeating past mistakes.

Portland was built on the Willamette River, and the city’s 150-year history has forever altered that body of water. The West Coast’s first navigation channel enabled timber and grain exports starting in the 1850s. The railroad followed in the 1880s. After a lull during the Depression years, the harbor shifted into full gear during World War II, as workers built Liberty Ships for the Navy and rail cars for the Soviet Union.

Since the war years, healthy business clusters have developed in international trade, ship repair and metals manufacturing. Little thought was given to the ecological health of the river until the 1970s, when Gov. Tom McCall campaigned against pollution in the Willamette and spearheaded efforts to clean up Oregon’s defining waterway. But by then much of the damage had been done. It was just a matter of time before the pollution bill came due.

Oregon Business does a nice job of showing readers just how large that bill is. According to a 2008 report paid for by the Portland Development Commission, failing to redevelop key harbor properties such as the Arkema site over the next 10 years could cost the region $320 million in investment, $81 million in annual payroll and 1,450 jobs.

Cleaning up the toxic messes along the river is not easy nor inexpensive, a fact that’s contributing to the slow pace of progress. Hard choices need to be made and compromises struck between competing interests.

Steve Gunther, an environmental contractor who resigned from the harbor’s Community Advisory Group in frustration, says, “This is a billion-dollar project with no timeframe, no budget, no vision and no accountability.”

Gunther calls Superfund process “a jobs program for lawyers, lab rats and consultants.”

The Oregonian says the cleanup effort could commence in 2013, with the cost potentially totaling $1 billion or more for industry, landowners, and sewer and utility ratepayers. It’s likely to involve hundreds of landowners past and present, and some of the state’s top industrial employers, from Schnitzer Steel to Siltronic.

I don’t see how Portland could have a more critical issue on its plate. We’re a river city and a city with a lot of unrealized ideals about how business and environmental needs can coexist. The thing is we’re not in a lab in a school. Portland is the lab and we can either get it right and prosper, or get it wrong and dissolve in a toxic stew of our own making.