The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the next big step in cleaning up the Portland Harbor Superfund site: inking an agreement for how pollution levels will be tested.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which raised concerns about the agreement in October, says the plans will deliver some but not all of the data needed to track and clean up widespread contamination of a 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River.
Four of the companies responsible for cleaning up contamination at the site took the lead in negotiating the agreement: Schnitzer Steel, Evraz, The Marine Group and Arkema.
Until today, those names were being kept confidential. They represent a fraction of more than 150 public and private parties responsible for paying for the cleanup.
"This work will expedite the cost-effective cleanup of the site in a way that is protective of public health and the environment, while ensuring that this waterway that is so vital to Oregon’s economy continues to be a working harbor," Schnitzel Steel and The Marine Group said in a joint statement.
The four companies are part of larger group of about 65 private firms involved in the cleanup. Together, they are calling themselves the PCI Private Business Group. The group released a statement supporting the pollution testing plan and has agreed to help pay the $14 million price tag.
The new agreement outlines how the entire Portland Harbor site will be tested for pollutants. It includes testing river sediment, surface water and fish tissue for contaminants such as carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.
The resulting map of pollution at the site will help pinpoint exactly how much cleanup action will be needed to meet the EPA's cleanup targets. Cleaning up the site will involve dredging the river to remove contaminated soil and covering contaminated areas with clean soil, among other actions.
Findings from the pollution sampling will also be used to determine which parties will pay for what portion of the massive $1 billion cleanup.
The new plan is a key step in the Portland Harbor cleanup process.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt released a statement saying he's proud of the progress the agency has made since releasing a final cleanup plan for the Portland Harbor site early this year.
"We are committed to keeping up the momentum,” Pruitt said. “By cooperating with the state, the tribal nations, other federal partners and the responsible parties, we will keep the cleanup moving toward our shared goals of reducing risks to people and the environment, and returning the Lower Willamette to a healthier and more vital working waterway for all.”
The EPA recently announced that Portland Harbor is one of 21 priority Superfund sites across the country targeted for "immediate and intense attention." The Northwest's other priority-listed Superfund site is a former creosote operation on the shore of Lake Washington in Renton, Washington.
EPA Superfund Task Force Chair visited Portland last week to help explain what that means, though many community groups and public agencies still had questions after he left.
Officials say updated pollution testing is needed because contamination levels may have changed as the site has slowly made its way through the Superfund cleanup planning process over the past 16 years.
In October, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality raised concerns that the state and tribes were left out of the agreement negotiations and that the pollution sampling plan would ultimately weaken and delay the cleanup.
Comments from the state and tribal groups were subsequently incorporated into the agreement, but according to DEQ project manager Sarah Greenfield the state still sees gaps in the final pollution sampling plan.
"DEQ thinks we are getting a lot of data that we need, but we’re not getting all the data," Greenfield said.
The final plan includes sampling smallmouth bass for contamination but it doesn't plan on sampling other fish species such as carp. The plan includes tracking contaminated sediment as it moves through the Superfund site, Greenfield said, but the state would like to see more of those tracking devices throughout the site.
The state is hoping the EPA will find groups that would be willing to pay for collecting this additional information.
"We’ve reiterated this a few times," Greenfield said. "Currently, I don’t think there are any parties planning to step forward. We’re just imploring EPA to seek those parties out. Ideally, we would have gotten it all in one package, but there’s only so much you can get out of one group."
Bob Sallinger of the Portland Audubon Society said the four companies involved in negotiating the agreement tried to use the process to "gut" the EPA's cleanup plan, and they wound up reducing the amount of pollution sampling the EPA was planning to do.
"It is deeply troubling that four companies were allowed to go behind closed doors and in secrecy negotiate a critical piece of the cleanup process with no public input or involvement," he said. "Polluters have the inside line at the EPA and the public is being shut out."
He said reducing the pollution sampling in wildlife species will make it hard to know whether the cleanup is working to meet the EPA's targets for how clean the river is supposed to be.
A statement from Schnitzer Steel and The Marine Group says the group of companies that negotiated the agreement was formed in response to a request from the EPA, and that the group "has worked closely with the EPA to finalize the plan."
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski said the agency always keeps the negotiations between the EPA and liable parties confidential and doesn't take public comments on the resulting agreements. However, she said the agreement finalized Tuesday was not necessarily the only agreement the EPA will make for pollution testing at Portland Harbor.
According to the agreement, pollution sampling will be coordinated by two contractors, AECOM and Geosyntec, with a goal of wrapping up in the fall of 2019.