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Understanding Portland Harbor

A study performed in 1997 by the Environmental Protection Agency and DEQ found that sediments in the bed of the lower Willamette River between Sauvie Island and Swan Island were highly contaminated. The study is called the Sediment Investigation Report, or the Weston Report. The list of contaminants includes metals like mercury and tributyl tin, pesticides like DDT, and other hazardous substances such as PCBs, petroleum products, and dioxins. As a result, in July 2000, EPA proposed that this stretch of the river, referred to as Portland Harbor, be placed on the National Priorities List, commonly known as Superfund. Governor Kitzhaber concurred with the proposed listing in a July 2000 letter to Carol Browner, EPA Administrator, and attached a Statement of General Principles that provides a framework for State and EPA roles and responsibilities related to the complex environmental cleanup. The principles highlight the importance of both agencies working closely with Tribal governments, local governments and the community. Portland Harbor was officially placed on the federal National Priorities List on Dec. 1, 2000 Federal Register.

​The Governor Kitzhaber’s principles are reflected in the Portland Harbor Memorandum of Understanding, which was signed by EPA and DEQ in February 2001.Under memorandum, DEQ serves as the lead agency for cleaning up sites located on the banks of the river, called upland sites, and EPA is responsible for cleanup of contaminated sediments in the river. DEQ also will be responsible for coordinating with state and local efforts such as the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds and the City of Portland Combined Sewer Overflow project, ensuring that work in Portland Harbor is linked to ongoing Willamette River restoration work.

EPA and DEQ are part of a larger inter-governmental project team that includes natural resource trustee organizations, which are designated by law to act on behalf of the public or tribes to protect natural resources, such as salmon, migratory birds and their habitat. The trustees involved in the Portland Harbor project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and six Tribal governments, including the Grand Ronde, Nez Perce, Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama. The tribal governments participate in the project as both trustees and as sovereign nations. All of the natural resource trustees are signatory parties to the 2001 memorandum of understanding.

​​​In September 2001, the EPA finished negotiating an agreement with members of the Lower Willamette Group, a coalition of Portland Harbor businesses and public agencies who voluntarily stepped forward to participate in the investigation and cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The agreement is a legal document called an Administrative Order on Consent, which outlines how the LWG will conduct a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study for the river. The order and attached Statement of Work describes the tasks that the Lower Willamette Group will perform and pay for as part of the remedial investigation and feasibility study, which will determine the nature and extent of contamination in the Harbor and the risks it poses to people and the environment.

EPA expects the remedial investigation to be completed in 2015 and the feasibility study in 2016. EPA plans to have a proposed Portland Harbor cleanup plan for public review and comment in mid- to late 2016. Following public comment, EPA will issue a record of decision describing cleanup actions for the Portland Harbor.

​​Community involvement is critical to the success of the cleanup. EPA and DEQ maintain a mailing list of people who are interested in what’s happening in Portland Harbor, and periodically let people know of updates to websites. EPA, DEQ and the Oregon Health Authority developed a Community Involvement Plan that describes activities the agencies use to inform and involve the public as the project proceeds. 

The Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, a group of interested citizens and representatives of local organizations, provided a forum for community members to learn about what is happening with Portland Harbor work. The group also provided information, suggestions or concerns about the process to DEQ and EPA. Portland Harbor CAG members represented various community sectors, including neighborhood associations, environmental justice and human health issues, environmental organizations, fishing communities and recreational users of the river.

​​As of 2014, DEQ was actively investigating and cleaning up over 100 sites on the banks of the Willamette in Portland Harbor to identify and eliminate sources of pollution that can move into the river. 

In 2005, DEQ and EPA released a Joint Source Control Strategy for Portland Harbor that describes the process for identifying and prioritizing sites adjacent to the river for cleanup. Under the strategy, DEQ assesses the various pathways that contaminants can take to reach the river and evaluates methods for controlling those contaminants to prevent recontamination of river sediments after they are cleaned up.

For example, contaminated soil or groundwater at a site that is adjacent to the river can move into the river and contaminate sediments and species that use the river. The Joint Source Control Strategy addresses all of the major sources of contamination, including storm water run-off, permitted industrial discharges, and waste management practices.

Responsible parties are funding the investigation and cleanup work in Portland Harbor, including DEQ’s oversight costs. Throughout the process, DEQ works closely with the Portland Harbor inter-governmental project team in reviewing draft legal and technical documents and ensuring that state laws and local issues are considered and addressed.

​EPA, DEQ and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, known as the Corps, share complementary responsibilities within the Portland Harbor Superfund site. The three agencies have entered into a letter agreement to promote more effective communication and to establish a long-term coordination strategy during the cleanup. The Corps issues permits for dredging and maintains the Federal Navigation Channel. These and other Corps activities in Portland Harbor need to be coordinated with the environmental work directed by DEQ and EPA. By signing this agreement, all three agencies commit to coordinate with each other as they carry out their various obligations in Portland Harbor.

​​​​In addition to EPA, two other agencies share responsibility for assessing potential risks to the community's health from contamination. One is a federal agency located in Atlanta, Georgia, called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, known as ATSDR. This agency is required to assess the potential health risks to the public from Superfund sites within one year of the site being proposed for listing. ATSDR looks at possible ways the contaminants could reach humans through the air, water, soil or food chain. In January 2002, ATSDR issued a preliminary health assessment and concluded that more fish sampling was needed to determine the threat posed by eating contaminated fish.

The Oregon Health Authority, Environmental Health Assessment Program (formerly the Oregon Department of Health Services, Superfund Health Investigation and Education Program) is under ATSDR’s cooperative agreement program, allowing the state agency to conduct health assessments for ATSDR. Following the collection and evaluation of fish data, in March 2006 ATSDR and EHAP issued a public health assessment focusing on eating  contaminated fish. ATSDR concluded that eating contaminated fish is the primary way people can be exposed to toxic chemicals at the site. The 2006 report describes contaminant levels in fish tissue in Portland Harbor and provides information to help people reduce their exposure and risk. 

Portland Harbor Fish Advisory 
The Oregon Health Authority issued a fish advisory because of high levels of toxic chemicals in resident fish in Portland Harbor. The advisory recommends that women of childbearing age, particularly pregnant or breastfeeding women, children, and people with weak immune systems, thyroid or liver problems, should avoid eating resident fish, especially carp, bass and catfish, caught between Sauvie Island and the Fremont Bridge in the Lower Willamette River.

Recreational use
The Environmental Health Assessment Program’s latest public health assessment evaluated the public health impact of contaminant levels on Portland Harbor recreational users.

The conclusions of the report are the following:

  • People who regularly boat, swim, beach comb or work at the former GASCO site beach over several years, may be exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at levels that may increase their risk of developing cancer at some time in their lives. However, it is unlikely that this beach is presently being used recreationally on a regular basis.
  • Swallowing or touching chemical contaminants in water, beach sediment, and bottom sediment at other beaches is not expected to harm the health of people who boat, swim, beach comb or work within the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.
  • Although not site-related, water contact of any kind near combined sewer overflow areas during the rainy season could cause bacteria-related illness.
As more sampling is conducted, and more data become available,  will conduct follow-up assessments at specific sites within the Superfund area in order to reflect current information. For example, new data was recently brought to Environmental Health Assessment Program's attention, indicating high levels of lead and other contaminants such as PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxins found at Willamette Cove, a site within the Portland Harbor superfund area that is accessed heavily by bird watchers, dog walkers, teenagers, college students, and transients. This data prompted the agency to begin work on a follow-up health consultation, focused specifically on trespasser use at Willamette Cove, which is scheduled for released in Spring 2012.



If you have questions about the Joint Source Control Strategy or Milestone Reports, please contact:
Dave Lacey
Portland Harbor Source Control Coordinator